Depression is a serious mood disorder that negatively influences how a person feels, thinks, and handles daily activities. For people who suffer from depression but prefer not to take medications, there are several options that can help relieve some depression symptoms.
Benefits of Natural Antidepressants
Depression affects around 120 million people worldwide and antidepressants are among the most prescribed medications of all time. Although antidepressant drugs are helpful in managing the most severe depressions, studies show that in milder cases they are often not any more effective than placebos. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends antidepressants as the main treatment of depression only in the most severe cases.
Antidepressants can cause serious side effects, including insomnia, fertility problems, blood-pressure issues, increased heart attack and diabetes risk, memory loss, and even provoke suicidal thoughts. What is more, antidepressants do not always mix safely with other medications and supplements.
Prescription antidepressants usually work by increasing the amount of serotonin, the brain’s feel-good chemical. But because there are many aspects of this complex condition that conventional drugs don’t target, they are not right for everyone. In fact, antidepressants work for only about half of the people who take them.
Natural antidepressants are often a good drug-free alternative. They have the advantage of treating many additional factors of depression such as insomnia, poor nutrition, and hormonal imbalances.
Natural Antidepressant Supplements
Natural remedies have been used in alternative treatments for centuries. Today, many herbs and supplements are marketed as natural mood boosters for people with depression. Here are some of the most used natural antidepressant supplements:
St. John's Wort
Studies have shown that a herb known as St. John’s wort can contribute to increasing the amount of serotonin in the body and is effective in treating depression. It also helps digestion, supports thyroid function, and has documented anti-inflammatory properties. People who suffer from a serious chronic depression called persistent depressive disorder or dysthymia, often do well with this herb.
St. John’s wort, nevertheless, can reduce the effectiveness of other medications, especially antidepressant drugs, and cause serious side effects. Like many other herbal supplements, it is readily available on the market, but it is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for depression.
SAMe, short for S-adenosylmethionine, is a synthetic form of the body's natural mood-boosting chemicals. This dietary supplement also helps with healthy nerve conduction and can reduce arthritis and joint pain. Besides, it has been shown to be effective in Parkinson’s disease patients with depression.
A clear advantage of SAMe is that it tends to work more quickly than most other supplements and drugs, often lifting mood within days.
SAMe, however, should be used with precaution. In higher doses, it can cause nausea and constipation and it can’t be used together with prescription antidepressants. SAMe was also found to trigger mania in people with bipolar disorder.
The supplement called 5-hydroxytryptophan or 5-HTP is an amino acid found in low amounts in some foods like turkey and bananas. While many antidepressants artificially stop the production of enzymes that break down serotonin, 5-HTP is the molecule the body uses to make this chemical, so it gives the body the raw materials it needs to make more serotonin. 5-HTP has the most effect on people suffering from both depression and anxiety and may also benefit sleep and weight loss.
There is, however, a safety concern that using 5-HTP may increase the risk of a side effect known as serotonin syndrome, that is, accumulation of high levels of serotonin in the body if taken with certain prescription antidepressants.
DHEA, short for dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone produced by the body. Changes in levels of DHEA have been linked to depression. Some studies have shown improvement in depression symptoms when DHEA is taken as a dietary supplement.
Although it's well-tolerated by most people, DHEA may have serious side effects if used in high doses or long term.
Taken in moderation, saffron can be effective in treating mild and moderate cases of depression. The spice is well known for its ability to help heal the digestive system. The fact that most serotonin is made in the digestive tract could explain the fact that saffron helps elevate low mood.
Several studies have compared saffron to Prozac, the most popular among the class of medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). It has been found to work at least as well as Prozac by acting on serotonin metabolism while being accompanied by fewer side effects.
Curcumin is the main active component in turmeric spice that works by increasing the levels of serotonin and the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
Just like saffron, curcumin supplements have been proven to be as effective in treating depression as Prozac. When it is taken along with a prescription antidepressant, cumin can enhance the drug’s effectiveness. It also helps with major depressive disorders and the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
A nutrient found in meat, poultry, and oysters, zinc is linked to mental functions such as learning and behavior. Low levels of this essential mineral are often associated with clinical depression. The therapeutic action of some prescription antidepressant drugs even seems to be similar to the natural activity of zinc in the brain. If taken in moderation, extra zinc might not only help keep depression at bay but also improve immunity, blood sugar levels, and heart health.
Studies show that there is a possible link between low levels of the synthetic form of folate, known as folic acid, and depression. A simple way to increase folate levels is to consume folate-rich foods including beans, lentils, fortified cereals, dark leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and avocados. Taking folic acid supplements can increase the effectiveness of other antidepressant medications.
Other natural antidepressants
There are several activities that people prone to depressions can add to their daily routine to help prevent or alleviate depression symptoms:
- Physical exercise is shown to regulate the neurotransmitters targeted by prescription antidepressants. It can often relieve depression as well as these drugs.
- Regular meditation practice is one of the best ways to beat depression, anxiety, and pain.
- Introducing proper breathing techniques can sometimes reduce depression and anxiety, as effectively as medication.
- Incorporating extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil into nutrition can cut the risk of depression in half.
Precautions When Taking Natural Antidepressants
Although they are effective in many cases, herbal and dietary supplements used as natural antidepressants are not a replacement for medical diagnosis and treatment. Just because they are natural doesn't necessarily mean they are safe. There are still further studies required in order to determine which natural antidepressant supplements are most likely to help and what side effects they might cause.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the FDA does not monitor nutritional and dietary supplements in the same way as it regulates food and drugs. As a result, manufacturers are not always transparent about the quality and purity of their products.
It is a good idea to do some research before trying any natural antidepressant. Make sure you are purchasing your supplements from a reputable company and find out exactly what they contain. Because they can interfere with prescription medications or cause dangerous interactions, you should always talk to your health care provider before considering taking any herbal and dietary supplements.