While there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a pharmaceutical anti-depressant, I think it is good to know about alternative options that might be helpful for some people dealing with mild depression. I believe in making informed decisions and since I looked into this quite a bit a few years afo, I want to share some of that information. (Whether to use pharmaceutical or alternative medication is a complex issue. I want to make clear that I am not against medication, but am simply sharing the information I wish had known earlier. I clarified my perspective on medication in To Take Psych Meds Or Not? If you have not read it yet, please start there.)
8 Alternative or Additional Options To Anti-Depressants
1. Vitamin D Numerous studies have linked a vitamin D deficiency with depression. This vitamin is primarily absorbed through sunlight, which if you live in Pittsburgh or Seattle, means you are certainly not getting enough! Regardless of where you live, most people are deficient because we tend to spend more time indoors than previous cultures. Furthermore, the vitamin D in sunlight is not absorbed through either glass or sunscreen. In our modern age, everyone should be supplementing this vitamin. I make sure a sufficient dose is in my multi-vitamin.
2. Vitamin B Low levels of both vitamins B-12 and B-6 have been linked to depression. Vitamin B-6 helps your body convert essential chemicals into serotonin. Vitamin B-12 (and folic acid) is essential for converting norepinephrine and dopamine. By increasing your intake of one or both of these vitamin B complexes you can increase the conversion rate of the very same chemicals the pharmaceutical anti-depressants utilize. I also make sure the multi-vitamin I take has a sufficient dose of both of these B vitamins.
3. Fish Oil Fish oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which is very important for positive brain chemistry. Additionally it has EPA and DHA; low levels of both have been linked to depression. This nutrient is found primarily in fish and flaxseed, which for most people is not a large enough portion of their diet to provide enough. Plus, if you are eating that much fish, you should also be worried about mercury. Almost everyone should be taking this supplement, since it is also good for a variety of other health problems. (There are too many to list but you can read about it here.)
The scientific research on fish oil is often deemed inconclusive as of yet, but I see enough evidence to make it worth a try. I take this every day now and I saw a significant improvement in my own mental health when I started taking it (and then more improvement after I started taking the correct dose! Oops…) I highly recommend giving it a try.
4. Magnesium Several studies have recently pointed to a link between magnesium deficiency and depression. Magnesium is an essential nutrient that acts in several ways to regulate the stress response, which plays a significant role in regulating anxiety and depression. Lack of magnesium also causes neuron damage which may be causing depression. Magnesium is also apparently useful for preventing migraines and morning sickness as well as a host of other issues facing our modern society. Some researchers have even suggested that most of the illnesses we experience are due to magnesium deficiency. I have not personally tried magnesium, although I intend to sometime this summer because I think the evidence is compelling. However, if you are interested in personal testimonies, a fellow blogging friend recently wrote about how magnesium saved her from anxiety, which is highly related to depression.
Magnesium is found in organ meats, nuts, leafy greens, and seawater. Magnesium used to be found in grains and water but no longer since our grains are refined and water purified, which leaves much of the population magnesium deficient. This is another of those nutrients that everyone should be making an effort to get more of in their bodies through both diet and supplementation.
5. Essential Oils I have found essential oils to be a great pick-me-up for an especially bad day and a great way to get through the depressing winter months. One important thing to remember is that essential oils immediately enter your system. This is a positive because unlike most anti-depressants, supplements, and herbs, you can get some relief in only a few minutes, sometimes even seconds. The downside is that essential oils won’t stay in your system all day. It only lasts as long as the oil is on your skin or the scent is in the air. You have to reapply quite frequently to get the positive effects over a period of time. Therefore, I don’t recommend essential oils as a long-term solution for getting off an anti-depressant, but I do think they are a great short-term solution, especially for bad days when the normal medicinal routine is not working.
Which oils? Frankincense (any company) is well known to be a mood balancer. It also boosts the immune system, so it kills two birds with one stone! I also use a blend called Joy by the company Young Living when I specifically need a boost from depression and have found it to work amazingly well. Other good blends, although I have not personally tried them include: Blues Buster by Plant Therapy and Balance or Elevation by DoTerra. I typically diffuse my mood balancing oils but sometimes I will dilute it and put it on the back of my neck. Fellow oilers, what other blends and oils have you found to work?
6. SAMe SAMe is a chemical found naturally in the body. It is a recent find here in the States, but has been studied for decades in Europe. SAMe is crucial to three central pathways of metabolism, one of which is directly connected to serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. It is possible to get SAMe from your diet, but the type found in food oxidizes too quickly to be worth much so it is better to supplement. Studies have found SAMe to be as effective as common pharmaceutical anti-depressants and it has both few and mild side effects.
My doctor (at the time) did steer me away from SAMe because it boosts the metabolism of all three pathways of metabolism, not just the one related to depression. That was, however, just one doctor’s opinion. I do know someone personally for whom this worked well and this also is one of the natural options with the most scientific research supporting it.
7. St. John’s Wort St. John’s Wort is an herb that is available in the wild and has been used medicinally for centuries. We believe it works by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, much like a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. Studies on this herb have yielded inconclusive results, but many, many people have found relief from depression by using it. Unfortunately, minor side effects have been reported and this herb does conflict with several prescription medications (including birth control). I have not personally tried this herb, but it is definitely one of the most commonly known natural options to treat depression.
8. 5-HTP 5-HTP is an amino acid used in the process of making serotonin. Instead of forcing more serotonin into the brain as pharmaceutical anti-depressants do, 5-HTP provides the building blocks to create more serotonin and allows the body to choose to utilize it. This means that it’s extremely difficult to overdose since excess 5-HTP simply goes unused and you’re not forcing your body to use something it might not even need. Researchers have found equal benefit to taking anti-depressants and with far fewer side effects. This supplement really only interacts with other anti-depressants which makes it a good choice for most people. I have been taking 5-HTP for two years now and can attest that it has worked remarkably well for me. 5-HTP has quite successfully been my main replacement for pharmaceutical anti-depressants.
Finally, although not a supplement or vitamin, I highly recommend checking the side effects on any other medications you may be taking as there are often mood side effects.
As you can see, there are so many options to treat depression naturally. Some are fundamentally a part of nutrition and some focus more specifically on brain chemistry. I hope you have been encouraged that pharmaceutical anti-depressants are not the only solution available!
Often it may take a combination of these supplements and vitamins to become healthy again. Keep in mind that most of these alternatives will take some time to build in your system. While you may experience some immediate relief, I would give each of these several weeks before determining whether it does or does not work.
A word of caution: Please, please talk to your doctor and a pharmacist about adding any of these into your routine and what type of interactions might occur with other medications you are taking. I am not a doctor and do not have professional training. You can read my disclaimer page where I say it again and again. This is especially important for the last three options, as they work very similarly to pharmaceutical anti-depressants! You could end up overdosing. Also, you absolutely MUST talk to your doctor if you want to come off anti-depressants as they must be tapered off and not immediately stopped.
Your doctor can help you figure out what is best for your situation. For example, since my pharmaceutical anti-depressant did not affect serotonin, I was able to start 5-HTP while still tapering off, but that is not always the case. Eventually when I determined that I needed to be on a pharmaceutical antidepressant again, I made that decision in conjunction with a doctor as well. You do not want to end up overdosing on serotonin or making your depression worse!
So just ask! Pharmacists might not normally deal with natural supplements but if you call and ask about interactions they can look them up. Sometimes they can even give dosage suggestions. (In fact, in this process I discovered that one of my pharmacists takes 5-HTP!)
Supplements and vitamins don’t work for everyone, but they might work for you. I hope this at least gives you some tools and information as you consider the best thing for you.
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