Diagnoses of depression and chronic anxiety are ever-increasing. And yet, natural remedies for depression still have a much too limited audience. Along with anxiety and depression comes the conventional solution to those who seek professional medical help.
These include antidepressant medications, most often in the form of SSRI and SSNI -selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and selective serotonin & norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, respectively. Prescriptions for these types of drugs have risen exponentially in developed countries since the 1980s.
People of all socioeconomic groups take antidepressants, including children. (1) In the U.S., the number of people taking antidepressants has risen 400% since 1988. (2) In Canada and Australia, these numbers doubled in the same period. (3)
How Antidepressants Drugs Work
The theory behind antidepressant medications is the stimulation of hormone production in the brain (serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and others).
In the case of SSRI/SSNI, chemicals in the drugs prevent neuroreceptors from re-absorbing them so the hormones stay longer in the brain.
A common experience when taking an SSRI or SSNI is an initial increase in serotonin in the brain but no immediate relief from feelings of depression until weeks later.
There are many troubling pieces of this complicated puzzle, the greatest of which is that researchers don’t really understand how SSRI work.
A 2015 study published by Neurological & Behavioral Reviews delved into this problem. Scientists developed a very interesting answer to how and why SSRI work:
- “serotonin transmission is elevated in multiple depressive phenotypes, including melancholia
- the serotonergic system [nerve endings that release and are stimulated by serotonin] evolved to regulate energy
- by increasing extracellular serotonin, SSRIs disrupt energy homeostasis and often worsen symptoms during acute treatment
- symptom reduction is not achieved by the direct pharmacological properties of SSRIs, but by the brain’s compensatory responses that attempt to restore energy homeostasis.” (4)
In other words, SSRI are effective because the body rejects them and re-adjusts to compensate for what they do.
The disrupted energy processes between neurons that SSRI cause makes the brain work harder to restore stability.
What Causes Depression?
The development of SSRI and SSNI was based on the idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. By changing the neurochemicals—poof!—a pill cures depression. We know now that’s not entirely true.
A variety of factors cause depression, and many are still unknown. It is true that people with clinical depression have reduced serotonin at work in their brains but that’s a symptom, not a cause.
We’ll focus now on what may very well be the primary physical cause of depression—and it may surprise you: gastrointestinal health.
Ninety percent of the serotonin in the body isn’t produced in the brain but in the intestines. (5)
A truly effective treatment for depression, therefore, lies not in taking pills that futz with neurochemicals in the brain.
7 Natural Remedies for Depression
Everyone gets sad from time to time; life is complicated and sometimes difficult. Chronic depression is another story, a debilitating condition that can go on for months and even years.
Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the mind’s influence on the immune system and health in general. Mental health affects the body’s health and vice versa. It then makes sense that to address anxiety or depression, we must expand the view of treatment to employ a holistic approach.
1. Heal Your Gut
“The digestive system is endowed with its own, local nervous system, referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS). Given the varied functions of small intestine, its ENS has developed individualized characteristics relating to motility, secretion, digestion, and inflammation. The ENS regulates the major enteric processes such as immune response, detecting nutrients, motility, microvascular circulation, intestinal barrier function, and epithelial secretion of fluids, ions, and bioactive peptides.” (6)
ENS (“the second brain”) is part of the peripheral nervous system that is of course connected to the central nervous system, which includes the brain. More and more research is finding the intricate and inextricable connections between gastrointestinal wellness and mood.
Gut bacterial imbalance, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut, and other digestive system conditions affect mood, feelings of anxiety, and depression. Gut microbes dictate the ability to handle stress early in life. (7) Inversely, psychological stressors affect gut microbiota. (8)
Probiotics can restore digestive health and in the process, relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.
2. Get Your Nutrients
There’s a reason Nature provides such an immense source of foods: humans need a variety nutrients for everything to work properly. If you are missing certain nutrients, the processes they support won’t happen.
It’s known that antidepressants deplete the body of magnesium, B-complex vitamins, and CoQ10 (a vital enzyme). Magnesium deficiency is becoming more common and one of its most obvious symptoms is depression.
Foods that will directly provide these nutrients are whole grains, cheese, yogurt, beans, leafy greens, broccoli, fish, and poultry. Add herbs and spices that reduce inflammation and are known to promote calmness and clarity. Find some suggestions here.
3. Get the Right Fatty Acids
The brain uses healthy fats for food. Fish oil contains EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), both known to promote brain function. Not all fish oil is of high quality. The ratio of EPA to DHA is important (1:6), as is the freshness of the oil. Do your research to get a high-quality oil.
Several studies have proven the effectiveness of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in relieving feelings of depression, presumably due to its nutrients and anti-inflammatory properties. (10)
4. Heal Your Adrenals
The small adrenal glands atop your kidneys produce neurotransmitters and stress hormones. Chronic stress (emotional and/or physical), inadequate sleep, and poor nutrition can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can, in turn, become adrenal insufficiency.
A major factor in depression is lifestyle stress. If chronic, stress can compromise adrenal function and they won’t produce the substances your body needs.
Low energy and mood, changes in appetite and weight, decreased sexual drive, muscle weakness, irritability, thyroid problems, and depression are some of the symptoms of adrenal fatigue.
You can find more information on adrenal fatigue and how to fix it here.
5. Explore Mind-Body Medicine
Practices that engage the body and mind are known to improve feelings of depression and anxiety and reduce stress. Meditation, yoga, qigong, and other exercises bring the mind into focus with the body and promote brain health.
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a study that scientifically shows acupuncture to be more effective than SSRI in reducing symptoms of depression. (11)
6. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the term used for being present and aware of your surroundings, circumstances, thoughts, and feelings without apportioning judgment. It is a way to see yourself more objectively, promoting emotional balance. Mindfulness has been used to treat pain, disease, anxiety, stress, and depression.
“Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is designed to help people who suffer repeated bouts of depression and chronic unhappiness. It combines the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditative practices and attitudes based on the cultivation of mindfulness.
The heart of this work lies in becoming acquainted with the modes of mind that often characterize mood disorders while simultaneously learning to develop a new relationship to them.” (12)
According to clinical trials, MBCT reduces the rate of depression relapse by 50%. (13, 14) The practice of mindfulness hones mental attention, awareness, and presence, opening to the potential to change your negative thoughts and their physical results.
7. Seek Counselling
Everyone needs someone to talk to. Friends are great for easy stuff but hardcore personal thoughts and feelings are more difficult to share with those closest to you. A professional counselor knows many different techniques to help you work through stressors.
Once you find someone with whom you resonate and can trust, the benefits you can reap from a qualified counsellor are immeasurable. Other than dietary and lifestyle changes, counselling is at the top of the list for ways to combat depression. (15, 16, 17)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective technique to change recurrent negative thought patterns that may be contributing to depression. It’s a short-term treatment combination of psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. Several studies and individual patients have demonstrated the effectiveness of CBT’s. (19, 20)
Just as anxiety and depression don’t develop overnight, learning new ways to cope, reducing stress, applying diet and lifestyle changes, and resolving emotional difficulties doesn’t happen in a day or a week. Employing several natural approaches to manage these conditions differ from the pharmaceutical approach in one very important way: they get to the root causes to contribute to a long-term solution. A series of pills does not.