Alternatively Speaking: Coping with depression

Alternative medicine enthusiast Natalie Marx answers your questions: Are there any natural remedies for depression? What physical activities can be helpful?

Teenager Depression Anxiety (photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Teenager Depression Anxiety
(photo credit: Nir Keidar)
Over the past few weeks, I have received rather a large number of letters regarding depression and how to treat it with alternative methods. I decided to dedicate an entire column to this rather 'misunderstood' disease since there is rather a lot of ground to cover. The impact that mild depression can have on ones personal life and those around us is indeed great. For the sufferer, motivation becomes a real issue and important aspects of life and relationships may be neglected causing further problems and isolation. Untreated at this point, depression can exacerbate into severe depression. For the relative or friend, this can be just as hard to see and know how to deal with.      Q. Dear Natalie, I have been suffering from mild depression for almost a year. My therapist has offered me anti depressants whilst I still continue my therapy sessions with her. I wondered if there was anything natural that you can recommend for depression.     A. The alternative medicine strategy I offer below for relieving depression focuses not only on easing the depression, but also includes herbs that help to restore balance to the endocrine and nervous systems. Since depression is often accompanied by lack of energy and insomnia, it is helpful to take energizing herbs such as ginseng in the morning and herbs that encourage restful sleep such as passionflower and valerian at night. You should of course always seek advice and approval from your doctor especially if you are taking any other medication. I strongly encourage you to continue to visit your therapist as this is a powerful way you can learn the tools designed to help you work out how to deal with your depression. The following are some of the most effective natural treatments for mild depression I have seen through my own practice with patients.
St John's wort is probably the most popular non-prescription herbal remedy for mild depression. It contains the active ingredient Hypericum perforatum. Hypericum extract works in a similar way to antidepressant medicines, by affecting levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain.
Research found in the British Medical Journal has suggested that St John's wort is as effective as imipramine in controlling symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
Other research has also shown that this herb may be as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in treating mild to moderate depression. You can find St John's wort available at health food stores, drug stores, and online in the form of capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, or tea.
You need to take four to six weeks to notice the full effects. Certain medicines should not be used whilst taking St John's wort, so please check with your doctor before taking. The normal dosage, according to the original study by the British Medical Journal, is three capsules of St. John's Wort extract per day, 300 mg each, standardized to contain 0.3 percent hypericin.
(Note: This is a total of 900 mg per day at 0.3% - too little might not be effective, but some people prefer to start out with a lower dosage anyway or for those who have a smaller body size.)
Many of my patients report that it is more and/or just as effective than many prescription medications but with fewer risks. The active compounds in St. John's wort help naturally reduce feelings of sadness, anxiety and worthlessness, and many who take it also report less exhaustion and fewer headaches. Best of all, this herb often produces no side effects, although some might experience sensitivity to sun or other minor side effects.     Studies suggest that populations that eat more fish per capita, such as Japan (147 pounds a year) and Iceland (225 pounds a year), have unexpectedly low rates of mild depression.
Emerging research suggests it may be effective for people with mild depression or as an aid to anti depressants. Studies of patients taking medication for mild depression have found that 1 to 2 grams a day of an omega-3 supplement led to a measurable reduction in symptoms.    
Q. Can you recommend any specific herbal remedies that are good for treating depression?
A. Siberian Ginseng is another wonderful herb that aids the balance of essential neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Taking Siberian Ginseng regularly can lead to improved feelings of general well-being. Siberian ginseng restores healthy adrenal function. Weak adrenal function is clearly associated with depression, emotional and physical stress being a primary cause. Take a standardized extract of Siberian ginseng, approximately 250 milligrams twice daily. Take Siberian ginseng consistently for two months, with a two-week break before resuming the dosage. Avoid taking close to bedtime since ginseng can be stimulating.
Studies show that ginkgo biloba extracts can help reduce depression, especially in the elderly. Ginkgo biloba contains active substances that can increase protein synthesis. Ginkgo also contains potent antioxidants that destroy free radicals to counter the damaging effects of aging. These free radicals affect the serotonin receptor sites, making older people susceptible to depression.
Q. Are there any vitamin supplement deficiencies that can be associated to sufferers of depression?
A. Vitamins B6, B12 and Folate (Folic Acid) are commonly recognized natural medicine for depression. Though found in many food sources, low levels of vitamin B-12, B-6 and Folate have been associated with symptoms of depression.
Magnesium: Most people do not get enough magnesium in their diets. Good sources of magnesium are legumes, nuts, whole grains and green vegetables. Like vitamin B6, magnesium is needed for serotonin production. Stress depletes magnesium, so although you may not 'think' that the stress in your life is a cause of your depression...perhaps it may well be.
Another supplement to consider is L-Tyrosine. This I have found to be very effective for depression, brain-fog, low energy, and those who have had little benefit from antidepressant medication, but feel better with amphetamines (or caffeine). L-Tyrososine has a stimulating effect. Caution: May trigger mania for those with Bipolar Disorder. This is for depression only.
Q. Natalie, I have been suffering from chronic depression for several years and have recently been advised by my doctor to take up more exercise. I have very little energy and do not feel like participating in any vigorous exercise. Can you recommend anything that can be beneficial for depression but at the same time not too strenuous?
A. Exercise and focused breathing will also positively impact your mood and state of mind by restoring balance to the body's internal chemical state. Endorphins are created through exercise. As a Yoga Practitioner I have seen hundreds of clients benefit from Yoga as part of their treatment plan for depression. The breathing exercises in yoga focus on slow, fluid breath effectively relax the body, reducing stress and anxiety, both effective in the fight against depression. Yoga postures work in sync with important hormonal glands and organs. The postures help produce the healing and soothing chemical balance that is needed to feel relief and full of life. Yoga exercises improve circulation throughout the body, sending oxygen to your brain and all your muscles. So both the new breath and the stretching and strengthening movements in yoga flush toxins from the body.
If you prefer to try other techniques focus on those that use breathing as the core of their practice (e.g tai chi). The fresh oxygen we are able to bring to the brain and to other parts of the body flows through our system and brings new light and strength to the unused parts of the body and mind where depression hides.
This column is brought to you as general information only and unless stated otherwise is not medical advice nor is it based on medical experiments. This column is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. For more information about specific problems, please contact a doctor.
Ask Natalie: If you have a health query and would like an alternative answer then email Natalie with your question at [email protected]
Thought of the day:  "You don't have to control your thoughts; you just have to stop letting them control you."
-Dan Millman