Natural Depression Help

| January/February 2002

  • Certain herbs and supplements can give you natural depression help to get over the blues.

The blues, the doldrums, being in a funk—no matter what you call it, mild to moderate depression affects us all at some point in our lives. Feelings of worthlessness or deep sadness, apathy, irritability, sleep disturbances, and changes in appetite can all signal a bout of depression. Approximately 19 million Americans are diagnosed with depression each year, with women being twice as likely to suffer from “the blues” as men. Possible causes include stressful events such as losing a loved one, chemical imbalances in the brain, nutritional deficiencies, thyroid disorders, or even food allergies.

Instant karma

Until the 1950s, conventional treatment for mild to moderate depression was limited to psychotherapy—a remedy that could keep a patient on the couch for months, even years, before any improvement was made. But the invention of antidepressant drugs ushered in a new era of conventional therapy that worked in a matter of weeks. The first antidepressants were tricyclics, drugs that enhance the concentrations of norepinephrine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect mood. Next came the monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors, which boost mood by reducing the amount of MAO, an enzyme that transports neurotransmitters to the neurons in the brain. Today, the most widely prescribed antidepressants are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil. SSRIs work by preventing nerve cells from absorbing the serotonin that is already circulating, leading to a sense of well-being. SSRIs are also used to treat conditions from postpartum depression to seasonal affective disorder, and even everyday maladies such as shyness and perfectionism.

Possible side effects

While these mood-enhancing drugs can be effective, numerous studies confirm that their use can come with a price. Common to all three types of antidepressants are sexual side effects, including reduced sex drive and impotence. According to Joseph Glenmullen, M.D., author of Prozac Backlash (Simon & Schuster, 2000), sexual dysfunction affects 60 percent of Prozac users. But other troubling side effects can also surface. Tricyclics may cause drowsiness, heart irregularities, blurred vision, confusion, nightmares, and anxiety. The use of MAO inhibitors can result in insomnia, dizziness, weight gain, and an elevation in blood pressure. The highly publicized SSRIs can cause headaches, hallucinations, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, drowsiness, diarrhea, sweating, tremors, and rashes. And like all medications, antidepressants can interact with other drugs. There have also been cases where some antidepressants, including Prozac, have been linked to an increase in uncontrollable agitation, violent outbursts, and suicidal tendencies when improperly administered to persons with a manic-depressive illness. There is some debate, however, whether antidepressants can precipitate mania in someone who would otherwise not have a manic component to their illness.

If you suffer from mild to moderate depression, you may respond well to a natural treatment approach and be able to forego synthetic drugs. However, depression, when left untreated, can be serious. See a doctor if symptoms persist.

Helpful herbs

The first herb most people think of when it comes to banishing the blues is St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and with good reason. John Cardellina II, Ph.D., vice president of botanical science and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition in Washington, D.C., says, “There is a strong, significant, and consistent body of evidence, based on more than thirty controlled clinical trials, that St. John’s wort provides benefit in relieving mild to moderate symptoms of depression.” Used in Europe for centuries as a nervine tonic, St. John’s wort targets depression by inhibiting the breakdown of several neurotransmitters, including serotonin. One recent double-blind German study compared 126 patients taking St. John’s wort with 114 taking Prozac and found that both groups achieved similar improvement. Yet only 8 percent of the group taking the herb experienced side effects, compared to 23 percent of the Prozac group. Another clinical trial of 324 patients found that St. John’s wort was just as effective as the tricyclic drug imipramine and was better tolerated and more effective in relieving anxiety.

The most common dosage prescribed by physicians in Germany, where St. John’s wort is used to treat at least half of all depressed patients, is 300 to 400 mg two to three times per day. Side effects are rare but may include dry mouth, dizziness, stomach upset, and photosensitivity. High doses may speed up the rate at which liver enzymes process some medications, including oral contraceptives, certain anti-retrovirals, anti-epileptics, and calcium channel blockers. Consult a qualified health-care practitioner before taking St. John’s wort with prescription medications.

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