The Green Way To Beat The Blues
True depression -- what the medical profession calls clinical depression -- is a serious, debilitating and sometimes life-threatening disease. Fortunately, depression doesn't become this extreme for most people, but for the many millions of people who suffer a bout of mild depression each year, it can be a great intrusion on their professional and personal lives. While antidepressants were the fifth-largest category of pharmaceutical sales in 2004, there are natural treatments that can help. To find out about them, I called Mark Stengler, ND, author of The Natural Physician's Healing Therapies and Prescription for Natural Cures (Wiley).
DIET AND DEPRESSION
It's not high-tech, but Dr. Stengler's first line of defense for mild depression links diet with depression. In an effort to ease their unhappiness, people who are depressed often indulge in goodies -- chocolate, ice cream, cookies and the like. But that, says Dr. Stengler, is definitely a mistake. Although sugar might make you feel better in the short run, it can worsen depression. Other things to limit or avoid: Caffeine, alcohol (which the body responds to as a depressant in spite of alcohol's immediate boost) and wheat -- again because in some people, it intensifies depression. Yet another reason to say no to processed baked goods, loaded with sugar and wheat as they are, is that many contain trans fatty acids (also labeled hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils). Trans fatty acids drive down levels of healthful omega-3 fatty acids -- and omega-3s are important for combating depression. Dr. Stengler says to eat foods high in omega-3s several times a week, including cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and cod, as well as ground flaxseeds, walnuts and flax oil.
Depressed people frequently suffer unknowingly from food allergies or sensitivities, says Dr. Stengler, which often can provoke depression. He advises going to a naturopathic physician for a diagnosis and treatment plan. Avoiding problem foods will result in your feeling better emotionally as well as physically. It is also important when depressed to keep your blood sugar at a steady level because blood sugar drops can intensify depression and irritability. Dr. Stengler suggests eating five smaller meals rather than three full meals. Two caveats about this, however: Be wary about potentially increasing your caloric intake -- gaining weight will just make you feel worse... and if you suffer from acid reflux or stomach problems such as gastritis, contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, advises sticking to three meals a day plus two low-glycemic index carb snacks such as nuts, unsugared nut butters, seeds, sweet potatoes, yams and single servings of legume dishes. This will maximize the effectiveness of your stomach acids, and thus, your digestion. You also can take chromium to keep blood sugar levels even -- when they are normalized, mood is better. Dose: 200 micrograms daily.
Dr. Stengler also has a vitamin protocol to ease depression. The B vitamins, especially B-6, B-12 and folic acid, are intricately involved in metabolizing neurotransmitters in the brain. He advises taking a 50-mg B-complex supplement twice a day. Add to your omega-3s by taking a fish oil supplement that contains 500 mg to 1,000 mg of EPA/DHA (the key omega-3 acids) each day. These will help improve neurotransmitter function and provide an antidepressant effect, he says. Ginkgo biloba, which many people take for memory enhancement, improves the blood flow to the brain and neurotransmitter activity as well. Take 60 mg to 120 mg twice a day of a product containing at least 24% flavoglycosides and 6% terpene lactones. Be sure to take a high-potency multivitamin, which, he says, provides the base of nutrients you need that are involved with brain function. Other helpful supplements may include SAM-e, 5-HTP, St. John's wort (buds and leaves), and L-tryptophan. Seek medical advice regarding appropriateness and dosage levels. Dr. Stengler suggests looking into homeopathic remedies as well as yoga and acupuncture. Many of his patients have found these quite useful in fighting depression.
SPECIAL FOR WOMEN
Women who are prone to premenstrual syndrome, which is a type of cyclical depression, need additional help. Dr. Stengler often prescribes chasteberry (vitex), a hormone balancer, to his patients who may require a daily dose of as much as 40 drops of the tincture or 180 mg to 240 mg in capsule form (containing at least 0.5% agnuside or 0.6% aucubine) every day of the month for four or five cycles as a therapeutic trial. He also often prescribes 500 mg of calcium and 250 mg of magnesium twice daily -- every day -- in order to increase the conversion of L-tryptophan into serotonin. Women also might want to try a natural progesterone cream applied to the inner wrist for 15 days to 27 days of the cycle. It's best to talk to a trained professional and not self-medicate for depression. While there is limited risk in making dietary changes, getting the right combination of supplements or proper levels of progesterone cream are best done under supervision. And, of course, don't forget regular exercise. As I have written many times before, research continuously supports that exercise -- 30 minutes to 60 minutes, three to five times a week -- is an effective antidepressant, almost a guarantee your spirits will be lifted for hours afterward.