Beyond Antidepressants: Advice from a naturopath on treating depression

Symptoms of depression

Depression is a mood disorder where the individual feels sad or irritable, or experiences a general lack of enthusiasm in normal daily activities. In severe cases, depression may lead to suicidal thoughts. Depression often comes and goes, but for some the overwhelming feeling of sadness persists and treatment is necessary. This type of depression, also known as dysthymia, can last years to a lifetime.

Alternative therapies for depression

If depression is suspected, the first thing to do is to consult a physician or psychotherapist to try and determine an underlying cause.

Occasionally depression is related to the change of seasons, when a lack of natural sunlight causes a change in mood referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Other symptoms of SAD may include lack of energy, fatigue, sweet cravings and weight gain. Some individuals with SAD may respond to traditional antidepressant medication. Others may respond with exposure to light via natural sunlight (whenever available), specialty light boxes, or full spectrum lighting.

Conventional treatment of depression typically includes a combination of psychotherapy and prescription medication intended to bring neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine) into balance. Adverse effects from such medications are not uncommon, and side effects may include insomnia, dry mouth, blurred vision, drowsiness, dizziness, sexual dysfunction, and weight gain or loss.

Some studies have linked smoking to depression, so a smoking cessation program would be recommended for depressed patients who smoke.

Complementary therapies include a combination of lifestyle and dietary recommendations.

1. Exercise therapy

Daily exercise increases the body’s natural production of endorphins, which naturally improve the mood. Endorphins are more apt to be released during long, moderate to high-intensity aerobic workouts. Exercises that are more apt to produce endorphins include running, swimming, cross-country skiing, long distance rowing, bicycling, aerobics, or playing a sport such as basketball, soccer, or football. Exercising outdoors is preferred, so that the individual can take in fresh air and sunlight.

2. Nutritional therapy

There are key nutrients in the diet that can help improve your mood. If these nutrients are lacking, depression may be a result. Like most things in life, moderation is the key. The body needs carbohydrates to manufacture serotonin, but excess intake of carbohydrates and simple sugars can lower serotonin levels and be factors in symptoms of depression. Turkey, salmon, and dairy products can help elevate levels of serotonin.

Caffeine and alcohol have powerful effects on the central nervous system and should be avoided by those suffering from depression. Food allergies can also have a powerful effect on the brain, and individuals with depression should avoid foods known to trigger sensitivities/allergies.

It is a good idea to keep a log of your daily food intake along with your mood. Do this for at least two weeks, and note any patterns or foods that may correlate with feelings of sadness, lack of focus or desire, or fatigue. Frequent small meals that include protein, whole grain carbohydrate and essential fat throughout the day (every 2 to 3 hours) will help maintain balanced blood sugar.

High or low blood sugar (hyper- or hypoglycemia) can mimic symptoms of depression. Enjoy foods rich in calcium, magnesium and B vitamins like whole grains, organic dairy products, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables. These will help to maintain proper nutrient balance and help prevent depression.

3. Supplements

Natural supplements to consider for treating depression include St. John’s wort, SAMe, 5-HTP, and a high quality multiple vitamin and mineral combination. Check with a qualified medical professional first.

  • St. John’s wort is probably the most widely studied herbal medicine for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In systematic reviews of the medical literature, St. John’s wort therapy for mild to moderate depression demonstrated significant advantage compared to placebo. It has fewer reported side effects compared to conventional prescription medication. Standard dosing begins at 300 milligrams three times daily.
  • S-Adenosyl Methionine (SAMe) is an amino acid that influences emotions and moods. Although more research is needed, SAMe has been shown to be an effective alternative treatment for mild depression with fewer side effects than conventional prescription medications.
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) is metabolized from tryptophan, and needed for the body to produce serotonin. While 5-HTP is found naturally in very small amounts in foods such as turkey and dairy products, the supplement form exerts a more powerful effect on the body. 5-HTP is potentially an alternative to SSRI medications. Standard dosing typically starts at 50 milligrams twice daily and again further research is warranted to substantiate initial claims. A multiple vitamin/mineral will help prevent most nutritional insufficiencies. B vitamins, for example, are essential for neurotransmitter production.

4. Other alternative therapies for treating depression

Additional alternative therapies to consider for depression include aromatherapy, acupuncture, homeopathy, yoga, and music therapy.

  • Aromatherapy (essential oil therapy) may help in mild forms of depression. It may ease mental tension, fatigue, help with insomnia, and elevate the mood. Essential oils can be added to massage oils, bath water, put in a diffuser, or diluted and applied to the skin. Ylang ylang, clary sage, basil, jasmine, and rose have all been used to help ease depressive symptoms.
  • Although there are reports of depressed individuals benefiting from acupuncture, evidence for the use of acupuncture to treat persons with depression is lacking. Clinical trials yield mixed results, and further research is necessary. The same is true for homeopathy.
  • Yoga has shown initial promise in helping alleviate mild symptoms of depression. Soft music and visualization therapy have also shown initial positive outcomes in individuals with depression. It has been especially useful in hospital and in-patient settings and in patients suffering from serious illness.

Related links

How to shift from depression to expression in Cynthia James' Gaiam blog
Feeling SAD? A doctor's top 4 remedies for winter blues
Deepak Chopra’s The Happiness Prescription on

Consult your doctor before using any health treatment — including herbal supplements and natural remedies — and tell your doctor if you have a serious medical condition or are taking any medications. The information presented here is for educational purposes only and is in no way intented as substitute for medical counseling.

Thank you for signing up!

Add comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.