19 June 2009

A natural approach to depression

This guide is mainly centred on self care for mild to moderate depression. Cases of major depression, psychosis and manic depression, professional care is extremely important.


A natural approach to depression

In this series of articles, we take a look at what you can do or take to prevent, alleviate or cure common ailments naturally. As many complementary and alternative medicine therapies haven't undergone rigorous testing, we base the recommendations here on the amount of evidence that is currently available (indicated with asterisks):

Natural Steps for Depression (check the Evidence rating)
*** Good Evidence of a health benefit.
** Some Evidence of a health benefit.
* Traditionally used with only anecdotal evidence.

Stop or reduce smoking, alcohol and caffeine use.***

Avoid foods that will negatively affect mood, energy and nutrient level and behaviour, such as:

  • Refined and processed foods.
  • Artificial foods including sweeteners, additives and chemicals.
  • High fat and fried foods.
  • Alcohol and caffeine.
  • Allergenic foods.

These nutrients have been shown to help Depression:

  • Vitamin B3, B6, B12 ***
  • Folic acid, magnesium, iron **
  • 5-HTP **

The following herbs are normally used for Depression:

  • St.Johns Wort ***
  • Ginko Biloba **

Homeopathic remedies to help Depression:

  • Ignatia *
  • Pulsitilla *
  • Arum *
  • Arsenicum *
  • Sulphur *

Alternative/Complementary Therapy
The most commonly used Complementary Approaches to Depression are:

  • Meditation**
  • Exercise**

Please Note: This natural medicine guide does not replace the assessment and advice of your doctor.

This guide is mainly centred on self care for mild to moderate depression. Cases of major depression, psychosis and manic depression, require professional care.

What is Depression?
Depression is described as a syndrome of chronic disturbed and depressed mood state. There are normally feelings of low mood, a loss of pleasure and vitality in activities that are usually enjoyable and feelings of restlessness, fatigue, mania, withdrawal, guilt, sadness and worthlessness.

Depression can have a wide range of causative and contributory factors such as nutrition, toxicity and mental/emotional behaviour.

General self care
What follows is a general guide for mild to moderate depression:

  • Have a look at when, where and why you experience depression.
  • Seek counselling for depression that is related to stress in relationships, your occupation, or family problems.
  • Try to follow a health-promoting lifestyle and diet. These are very important in the treatment and prevention of depression.
  • Evidence seems to indicate that in mild to moderate depression; a lifestyle program that leads to cessation of smoking, reduction of alcohol and caffeine, whilst commencing regular exercise and a wholesome healthy diet are more likely to produce better results than antidepressants, with no side effects and at a greatly reduced cost.

Self-care for mild depression

A. Healthy Nutrition
Do not change your diet drastically at this point (which may cause more stress), but do try to reduce or avoid foods that will negatively affect mood, energy and nutrient level and behaviour, such as:

  • Refined and processed foods, such as fast food. They cause a low blood sugar response, are deficient in nutrients required for good brain function and positive mood.
  • Artificial foods including sweeteners, additives and chemicals.
  • High fat and fried foods, hydrogenated, oxidised and processed oils - these cause sluggishness, depression and reduce circulation to the brain.
  • Alcohol and caffeine, interrupt and imbalance hormonal processes and brain chemistry.
  • Avoid known allergenic foods.

Try to improve your eating habits in the following areas:

  • Eat more whole-grains, fruit and vegetables.
  • Eat more lean meat, turkey, cold water oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and river trout, fresh fruit, bananas and vegetables, nuts.
  • Cook by baking, stir-frying, steaming instead of frying and boiling.
  • Drink more water.
  • Try to eat a wide variety of foods.
  • Avoid crash diets, yo-yo diets, and very low fat diets, especially those that limit natural vegetable fats.
  • Avoid skipping meals.

Caution: If you are taking depression medications, avoid foods rich in tyramine such as almonds, avocadoes, bananas, beef or chicken liver, beer, cheese, chocolate, coffee, fava beans, pineapple, peanuts, pickles, sausage, yeast extracts as well as any high protein food that has undergone ageing, pickling, fermentation or similar processes.

B. Check for substance abuse and possible medication side effects:

Reducing or stopping smoking

  • Reduce or stop smoking if possible. Nicotine has been found to cause hormonal imbalances, contains heavy metals and lead to vitamin C deficiency; all factors associated with depression.
  • Consider a smoking cessation support group, as quitting smoking can bring on depression, therefore you need support.

Reduce or stop alcohol use

  • Alcohol is a known brain depressant.
  • Even as little as two drinks a night have been found to cause depression in some people.

Reduce caffeine use

  • Levels of seven cups a day of coffee or more have been particularly associated with depression. Reduce slowly to 0-2 a day, to avoid strong withdrawal symptoms. Because caffeine is a stimulant, mild depression may be one of the symptoms of withdrawal. Whilst reducing caffeine, increase your water intake.
  • Avoid replacing caffeine with other strong stimulants such as ‘energy boosting’ herbal remedies, that contain ephedra also known as ma huang, caffeine or guarana.

Stop other stimulants and drugs

  • Substance abuse, amongst others cocaine and amphetamine, are associated with depression. Depression may also be experienced when trying to come off a regular habit of such drugs.
  • Seek professional help and support if you have a habit you cannot stop.


  • Consult with your doctor to see if prescription or OTC medication may be causing depression. It may also be due to drug interactions.
  • Avoid self medication.

C. Exercise and activity

  • Get regular exercise.
  • At least 100 clinical studies have evaluated exercise as an effective anti-depressive treatment for mild to moderate depression, and many studies have concluded that exercise is as effective as other antidepressants including drugs and psychotherapy.
  • Safe and effective physical activity will also help to dissipate stress and induce the relaxation, alleviate mood, re-establish a sense of control, improve self-esteem.
  • Exercise just three times a week for 30 minutes a time has been found to have anti-depressive effects.
  • The best exercises have been found to be strength training and aerobic activities such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming cycling, aerobics and dancing and racquet sports.
  • Consult with an exercise professional if you have not exercised for a while, to help set up an effective and safe program for you.

D. Relax, calm and clear your mind

  • Take a little time to calm and clear your mind and body.
  • This is important when dealing with stressful periods.
  • Various relaxation exercises will help induce the ‘relaxation response’, which is the helpful opposite to the ‘stress response’.
  • Try meditation.

E. Get enough rest and sleep

  • Insomnia can cause and contribute towards depression.

Natural remedies
Over-the-counter (OTC) vitamins and minerals
Consider taking a good multivitamin/ mineral and a specific formula blend for depression that contains:

  • Nicotinic acid form of Vitamin B3 aids the effectiveness of Tryptophan
  • Vitamin B6 aids the effectiveness of Tryptophan
  • Vitamin B12, C, E
  • Folic acid, selenium, magnesium, iron, zinc, calcium
  • Tryptophan available as 5-HTP
  • Flaxseed, borage or evening primrose oil
  • Tyrosine, an amino acid

Cautions: If you are currently taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (ssri) (prozac, paxil or zoloft) do not use tryptophan supplementation at the same time.

Over-the-counter (OTC) herbal remedies
The following herbal remedies compliment the lifestyle, dietary and supplemental self-care:

If under the age of 50
St Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum) extracts. This herb has been well studied and found to be as effective as certain medications in treating depression. Furthermore, report in the Lancet in 1996, confirms this herb as an effective antidepressant without the normal side effects. It may take up to several weeks to improve symptoms.

If over the age of 50
Ginkgo Biloba extract. The active compounds have been shown to reduce depression in older individuals, by benefiting brain function.

Caution: Do not take St John’s Wort if you are taking antidepressant medication.

Over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic remedies
The following OTC homeopathic remedies can be used for symptomatic relief:

  • A constitutional remedy, i.e. a remedy suit your individual constitution, can be recommended by a Homeopath.
  • Ignatia - depression that follows a period of grief, bereavement and loss.
  • Pulsitilla - if person is prone to crying easily, and feeling constant need for reassurance and support.
  • Arum - if person has feelings of low self worth, self -loathing and suicidal thoughts.
  • Arsenicum - if the person is restless and fatigued, obsessively neat and tidy and experiences chilliness.
  • Sulphur - if despairing and depressed.

Over-the-counter (OTC) Bach flower remedies
Aside from a constitutional remedy, the following can be recommended:

  • Gorse for a sense of hopelessness.
  • Sweet chestnut for despair.
  • Mustard for depression with no obvious cause.
  • Willow for depression caused by resentment.
  • Honeysuckle for those who dwell on the past.

Over-the-counter (OTC) aromatherapy

  • Aromatherapy oils can help to lift mood and aid relaxation
  • Oils can be added to baths, massaged on to the body or diffused in a burner.
    • In a bath, use 10 drops per half bath. Soak in it for 20 minutes.
    • For massage oil, use 15 drops in total to 30 ml of a carrier oil such almond, grapeseed or sesame oil.
  • If buying essential oils, they must be mixed with a carrier oil, to dilute them. Premixed oils are readily available.
  • Follow directions and note cautions indicated. Certain oils should not be used for example, when pregnant.
  • Look for premixed oils that contain the following essential oils: bergamot, lavender, rose, clary sage, neroli and ylang ylang.

Caution: If you have a chronic illness or routinely take prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) medication, or you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor, primary health care practitioner or pharmacist before taking any new medications.

Do not stop taking any prescription medications without the guidance and consultation with your doctor.

[This article was written by natural expert Dr Chase Webber]


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