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One word for feelings of sadness, irritability, hopelessness, helplessness, anger and discouragement is depression.

Depression as a widespread condition

Depression is a widespread condition and can be defined as persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, hopelessness and helplessness. It can appear as feelings of anger and discouragement as well.  There may be other symptoms, including:

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  • Fatigue and a lack of energy
  • Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, self-hate, and  inappropriate guilt (guilt for something you didn’t do or weren’t  responsible for)
  • Agitation, restlessness, and irritability
  • Changes in appetite- this can result in over-eating or under-eating with an associated weight gain or loss
  • Withdrawal from usual daily activities or a loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities ( examples would be loss of interest in sex, friends, exercise, hobbies)
  • Difficulty concentrating or becoming/staying motivated
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping

It is also important to remember that depression often comes along with at least some aspects of anxiety, phobias or other psychiatric disorders.  It can also be situational—based on the conditions of the moment.  Grieving for a loved one who has passed away is a type of situational depression that may require only temporary treatment.  Other types of depression may require longer courses of treatment.

Naturopathic medicine as a natural alternative approach to healing depression

So, just what is naturopathic medicine?  Naturopathic medicine is a holistic and natural alternative approach to healing.  In naturopathic medicine, we use a holistic—a whole-person—approach to healing.  A naturopath will use alternative methods such as botanical medicines, vitamins, supplements, homeopathy and various techniques as well as counseling and lifestyle alternatives to help relieve depression.  Depression can impact your energy levels, mood, weight, sexual interest and ability to think clearly and ability to function every day—it is not just a matter of “snapping out of it”.  You DO have control, though, and this is important to recognize.

When a naturopathic physician is treating an individual with depression, they see a whole person in front of them, with a family, friends, a past, a present and a future.  A naturopathic physician will be very interested in prevention and will use primarily natural, holistic methods to treat your depression with vitamins, supplements, diet, lifestyle changes and natural medicines rather than with prescription drugs.  A naturopath will also be interested in maximizing your overall health while working to improve your problem and finding, if possible, the cause of the problem. The cause may be stress such as family, job or addiction issues or it may be more directly related to your brain biochemistry.  In all cases, a naturopathic physician will be looking at alternatives to drugs to treat you.

There may be many underlying causes of depression— nutritional, environmental, social, and psychological factors are involved.  It’s always important to determine which combination of factors is important in your case. Counseling with a qualified therapist should always be recommended.

Stress

Stress is critical in the development of depression (and anxiety AND most other disorders as well!).  Techniques used to modify stress include deep breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, and biofeedback. A naturopath might also suggest adrenal and thyroid support, as these glands are extremely important in dealing with the effects of stress. This support may be glandular supplements, such as dessicated (dried) adrenals and thyroids from usually, cows or pigs. The idea behind the use of glandular is to nourish your glands.  One should not overdo these glandular, however—dessicated thyroid, for example, contains thyroid hormone and you do not want to inhibit your own thyroid function.

Botanical medicines for stress

Another alternative approach that avoids this issue is to use botanical medicines that support the glands and your overall health – these are often called adaptogens—they help the body adapt to different conditions. Examples of adrenal adaptogens are glycyrrhiza (licorice), Eleutherococcus senticosus, Schisandra chinensis, Rhodiola rosea. Thyroid adaptogens include Melissa officinalis, Fucus vesiculosis, Macrocystis pyrifera and Chondrus crispus.

Environmental Factors

A naturopath may also look for environmental toxins such as pesticides, allergens, heavy metals or lifestyle factors such as smoking, excessive caffeine, recreational drugs, alcohol use and the amount of exercise you get as a cause of your depression.  Some environmental toxins may be removed by IV chelation (a process where you get a solution intravenously which allows the removal of certain heavy metals), by inducing excretion via the kidneys or the bowels or by colonics.  Detoxification can also be accomplished using oral agents. Please see a qualified health care professional for these approaches!

Other adjustments can be made in lifestyle.  If drugs or alcohol is a problem, a naturopath might suggest a 12-step program.  This could be Alcoholics Anonymous , Al-Anon, for friends and families of alcoholics, Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or any of the many other support groups available.

Exercise is critical both for physical and mental health.  Walking 10-20 minutes a day is a good way to start—it helps relax you, work your muscles, heart and lungs.  You don’t need to get a “runner’s high” to feel better, you just need to start. Find an exercise that you enjoy—and will stay with! It turns out that exercise can be just as effective using anti-depressants! 

Diet and Nutrition

Nutrition plays a very important role in depression.

A whole-food (non-processed) organic diet is strongly recommended for maintaining health. It’s not always easy to find fresh organic foods—a good place to start is by finding the local farmer’s market.  Local means fresher and you help out the local economy as well.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol as much as possible. The high consumption of either of these may reflect an instinct to self-medicate and the need for professional treatment.

Blood sugar levels have to be maintained at an even level.  Small meals or snacks with complex carbohydrates or high in protein are encouraged. Depression has been associated with high rates of processed sugar consumption. Instead, eat as many fresh vegetables and fruits as you can.  We’ve been trained to think that vegetables are “bland”—but they aren’t!.  Try them steamed with crushed nuts or stir fried (in olive oil) with fresh herbs and spices. Try roasting vegetables with other herbs and spices. Eat them raw for even more nutritional value!

Vitamins, minerals and supplements

The B vitamins help reduce depression, anxiety, irritability, nervousness and fatigue. Often, 2-3 times the RDA is recommended, particularly for smokers, as smoking depletes B vitamins.About 1/3rd of depressed patients are deficient in folic acid, and B vitamin.


Minerals such as magnesium, zinc, selenium and chromium should be particularly maintained.  Generally, a good multi-vitamin with minerals should be used.

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils can be the single most important supplement one can take for depression and anxiety. A reasonable goal is 3-4000 mg a day.  The omega-3 fatty acids are essential for overall health as well and at this level, there is very little good evidence for interaction with prescription drugs. Try eating 2-3 servings of cold-water fish such as herring, mackerel, wild salmon and sardine each week.

Amino acids

Amino acids as supplements can function as the precursors of essential brain transmitters.  Clinically, we often find that supplementing with safe, inexpensive precursors if extremely effective.  Care must be taken if a patient is already on anti-depressants as there might be supplement-drug interactions.

S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) is also often deficient in depression and should be supplemented. A number of studies have shown SAMe to be as effective as anti-depressants. 5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) has also been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants. Finally Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA),  has been shown to be an effective supplement to use in depression.

Essentially, these supplements provide the brain with the essential molecules it needs to make neurotransmitters—the messengers between the cells of the brain.  It is believed that at least part of the reason depression occurs is that there is an imbalance in these neurotransmiteers.

All of these should be taken under the care of a health professional familiar with them.  SAMe should not be used in people with bipolar disorder. 5HTP should only be taken with SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), a type of anti-depressant, under the care of someone experienced with both 5HTP and SSRIs because of the risk of too much serotonin.

There are a number of botanical medicines that function as anti-anxiety treatments.

  • HYPERICUM PERFORATUM (ST JOHN’S WORT)
  • PIPER METHYSTICUM (KAVA KAVA)
  • PASSIFLORA INCARNATA (PASSIONFLOWER)
  • VALERIANA OFFICINALIS
  • MATRICARIA RECUTIA (CHAMOMILE).

These herbs should be taken under the care of a health professional familiar with them.  There are interactions between herbs and prescription drugs.

Hypericum/St Johns wort should not be taken with SSRIs, other anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications, MAO inhibitors and some cardiac drugs.

Piper methysticum/ Kava should not be taken with l-Dopa, alcohol, anticoagulants, barbiturates, benzodiazepines or muscle relaxants.

Care should be taken when using any herb with any drug that affects the nervous system.

There are a number of other approaches that may have an important benefit for patients.  These include acupuncture, aromatherapy and homeopathy.

It is most important for patients with depression to begin to feel empowered to control their condition.  This feeling of control can go a long way in minimizing and dealing with depression.  Alternative therapies provide one way to gain that control.

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