Even now, in the year 2016, the subject of depression is still somewhat taboo, not well understood by the general public, and very stigmatized. At the same time, about one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 are taking antidepressants, and between 2005 to 2008 the use of antidepressants increased 400%, and the prescription rate has continued to increase. So what’s the deal? Why is such a common condition still not openly talked about without the fear of judgment and shaming? What really are our options, and do they work?
The best place to start this conversation is by talking about what depression actually is, and what it isn’t. Everyone has been sad. Most people have even experienced acute, situational depression in response to a loss or a hardship. But for about 10% of individuals, their depression is something very different. It’s a sense of sadness, worthlessness, abandonment, hopelessness that lasts for weeks or months, and isn’t necessarily triggered by a trauma. This type of depression, known as Clinical Depression or Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), interferes with the person's ability to lead their life as they normally do. That includes causing insomnia and fatigue, weight fluctuations, feelings of helplessness, thoughts of suicide, irritability and anxiety, loss of sex drive, and physical pain. The exact cause of MDD isn’t fully known, as it varies with each person’s unique brain chemistry, but it comes down to improperly functioning neurotransmitters and neurocircuits, genetics, and imbalanced hormones. Simply, it’s a chemical or an electrical problem in the brain. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy, and shouldn’t be treated any differently than outwardly visible ailments.
Now that we have a very basic grasp on what MDD is, the next obvious question is what can be done to help restore normalcy and reduce symptoms. As I mentioned above, antidepressants are a very common, rapidly growing answer, especially in the United States. While antidepressants can absolutely be the right choice for some individuals, experts have begun to discuss the issue of overprescription, and the fact that less than a third of those taking antidepressants have seen their, or any other mental health care provider in the last year. Then there is the concern about a wide variety, potentially serious side effects: nausea, weight gain, loss of sexual desire and other sexual problems, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, dizziness, irritability, increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior, and many others. You may have noticed that these side effects seem oddly familiar. That’s because they match up with the symptoms of depression. Now I want to be completely clear, I am not saying antidepressants are bad or that no one should take them. But with my personal and educational background, I do believe it is very important to know all your options.
If you’re experiencing depressed mood, the first place to start is by taking a close look at your diet and lifestyle. Choosing foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains can help support a gentle, long lasting balancing of brain chemistry, improvement of mood, and boosting of energy level. About 50% of the brain’s gray matter is composed of polyunsaturated fatty acids, ⅓ of which are Omega-3’s, and are supplied through diet, so to help the brain function correctly it is extremely important to consume adequate omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods such as flax and chia seeds, salmon and mackerel, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, spinach and soybeans. You’re also going to be looking at vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, folate, calcium, SAMe, 5-HTP, magnesium, and selenium. Talk to your nutritionist or other natural healthcare practitioner about getting professional grade vitamins, as almost any of the vitamins you can buy at the drugstore are poorly sourced, improperly formulated, low-quality. Basically a big waste of money.
It’s also very important to keep your body moving and healthy. Walking, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and other forms of exercise are absolutely crucial for naturally thriving with your depression. All exercise is good, but anything that gets you outside in nature has been proven to be even more beneficial in reducing stress responses, and increasing the release of hormones in the brain that can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
There are some wonderful herbs that can help support you when dealing with the symptoms of depression. The most well known is St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), but other herbs include oatstraw (Avena sativa), green tea, chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). While herbal medicine is much gentler on the body and has fewer side effects than many prescription medications, they still have powerful effects on the body, and can interact or interfere with medications or medical conditions. So before you start taking any herbal remedies, talk to a qualified healthcare practitioner, such as a medical herbalist. They will be able to make sure you’re taking the herbs that will best help you, and not cause you more trouble.
Complementary therapies like Reiki, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), and Massage Therapy have also been shown to be extremely beneficial for reducing the symptoms of depression. Talk therapy has also been shown to be a very useful when dealing with MDD. A qualified and trained professional can help you process the crazy emotions surrounding depression, learn to regain a feeling of control in your life, and plan out the best course of action for you to boldly move forward with your life. You have the power to affect change in your life. A psychologist or counselor can help you find that power.
The moral of the story here is that MDD doesn’t have to define you. You have more options available to you than you might have known, and there is so much hope. You’re not crazy. You’re not broken. You just might be dealing with a medical condition that happens not to have many external physical expressions. As always, talk to your healthcare provider before you make any changes to your medical protocol.
These facts and opinions are those of a certified Master Herbalist, Reiki Master Teacher, and Dipl. Natural Health Consultant, and are for educational purposes only, and not intended to replace consult with your qualified healthcare practitioner.