A 62 year old woman named Carol came to my clinic this winter concerned that she was depressed. She had tried anti-depressants in the past and didn’t find them satisfactory. She asked for my help in creating a program to help her regain her joie de vivre. I let her know that we would do a proper depression assessment, and if I felt she was mildly to moderately depressed, then a naturopathic medical approach would be an appropriate and often very successful strategy for treating her depression. My experience is that often depression is caused by a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual factors. And yes, there are a number of alternatives to anti-depressant drugs that have far fewer side effects and withdrawal effects. (That said, if someone has severe depression, or has the urge to hurt themselves or someone else, they must get psychiatric help immediately.)
One of the tenets of Naturopathic medicine is “treat the cause”. Therefore, in treating a patient with depression, I first do a thorough evaluation of their physical and mental health. Sometimes, to get to the bottom of depression we have to treat an illness, manage pain, reverse anemia, balance hormones such a thyroid, overcome addictive behavior, support the adrenal glands, correct digestive disorders, find nutritional deficiencies, assist in sleep and more. The brain is profoundly affected by the rest of the body, and for it to function properly, the rest of the body needs to be balanced and healthy. That said, there are some specific ways to support good brain health and create a better mood. Getting coaching on how to implement these principles into your life can be very helpful. When working with my patients, we start with small goals, monitor progress, problem-solve obstacles, and celebrate successes as we move towards a healthier mind and body.
Eat to fuel your brain by eating high quality proteins, fats, whole grains, and lots of vegetables and some fruits. Avoid refined sugar and flour products but enjoy some whole grains like brown rice and quinoa. Include fish or fish oil supplements as their omega 3 fats are important for the brain. Avoid stimulants, alcohol and drugs. Work with a naturopathic physician to identify and eliminate any food allergies or intolerances that may be dragging you down. Optimize your intestinal gut bugs (microbiome) with probiotics and fermented foods. Make sure you don’t have undiagnosed or untreated Celiac disease (autoimmune gluten reaction) as this one factor can have a serious impact on mood and brain function.
Get out and exercise: The evidence is very clear. Exercise is a very potent anti-depressant. Head to head, it works as well as anti-depressant medication for many people. Getting outdoors provides needed light for our brains to balance its chemistry. Working out with others has the added benefit of providing social contact, a key element of good mental health. Getting outside in nature has added benefits to the nervous system, hormones and mood.
Vitamins: Even if you are eating a healthy diet, extra magnesium and a B complex supplement can give the brain the building blocks it needs to make neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that ward off depression. Supplement with Vitamin D, as deficiency is rampant in the Canada, and has been linked to depression.
Balance brain chemistry naturally: St. John’s Wort has been extensively studied and has been shown to be as effective as several of the common prescription antidepressants for most types of depression. Another effective natural anti-depressant is 5-HTP. (5-hydroxy-tryptophan). It gives the brain the raw materials for making serotonin, which helps depression, carbohydrate cravings and sleep. I have used both of these natural medicines with success in my practice over the past twenty years. I recommend being supervised by your naturopathic doctor before taking them, especially if you are on other medication.
Counselling: Research shows that counselling, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can help people learn the skills to overcome depression. I regularly teach my patients proven, practical skills like relaxation training and mindfulness techniques. Research shows that Self Compassion practices offer a gentle way of coming to terms with emotions. Counsellors offer insight, trauma work, addiction recovery and more that can help people become more adjusted and alive. Good counselling, combined with natural medical approaches is often a successful combination for the treatment of depression.