Sadness darkens the world of the 16 percent of Americans diagnosed with clinical depression and the untold millions more that try to cope without a formal diagnosis, according to a University of Colorado study published in Clinical Therapeutics.
Just as daunting, an estimated 30 million Americans take prescription antidepressant drugs for premenstrual discomfort, chronic pain and anxiety, as well as depression, according to Dr. James Gordon, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. He founded and directs the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, in Washington, D.C., and is the renowned author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression.
While conventional medicine offers a smorgasbord of antidepressants, many are ineffective or produce harmful side effects. One University of Pennsylvania study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found scant evidence that they benefit people with mild to moderate depression because the drugs work no better than a placebo in at least 80 percent of cases.
Side effects of traditional antidepressants included nausea, headaches, weight gain, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, agitation, irritability, anxiety and even violent behavior and suicidal thoughts, according to the University of Colorado research involving more than 40,000 patients. It further showed that nearly 70 percent of patients stop taking the prescription drugs within three months, largely because of intolerable reactions.
Some safer and healthier alternatives exist. “We know that depression is more a symptom than a diagnosis,” says Dr. Hyla Cass, author of numerous related books, including Natural Highs. “It’s a sign of imbalance in biochemistry, caused by any number of factors that we can determine and often correct using the right approach.”
Curcumin, the rhizome of the turmeric plant that gives curry powder its distinctive yellow color, addresses both the symptoms of depression and its underlying causes, says Ajay Goel, Ph.D., director of the Baylor Center for Gastrointestinal Research, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. A recent study by Goel in Phytotherapy Researchshowed that this natural spice helps generate new, properly functioning brain cells that manufacture mood-elevating neurotransmitters.
Along with being as effective as Prozac (fluoxetine) without the side effects, curcumin can neutralize the suicidal thoughts and violent behavior sometimes displayed in people with major depression taking prescription antidepressants. “We also know that prescription antidepressants become less effective the longer you take them,” says Goel. “Curcumin doesn’t lose its effectiveness over time.”
Rhodiola rosea, the well-researched root of an Arctic plant, has brought relief even to some of Cass’ severely depressed patients. Cass points to its ability to help balance stress hormones and stimulate production of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, much like the claims of prescription drugs, but without any known side effects. A new study published in Phytomedicine confirms that rhodiola is at least as effective as the prescription antidepressant Zoloft (sertraline) in fighting major depression.
Cass also recommends 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), an extract of the seeds of an African shrub that produces the critical serotonin with no negative side effects. A recent Indian study from the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences comparing the effects of 5-HTP and Prozac confirms that “5-HTP definitely has antidepressant effects in patients with depression.”
A Holistic Approach
An integrative approach that emphasizes physical activity and a meditation or other spiritual practice can be highly effective in treating all levels of depression, according to Gordon. “It’s a way to get unstuck, to help us move through and beyond depression and other difficulties in our lives,” he says.
Exercise triggers rises in mood at least equal to those generated by antidepressant prescription drugs, according to new Duke University research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. People that are depressed often don’t want to move, Gordon comments. “Start with what you can do. Walking a couple of blocks a day is a good beginning.”
He notes, “I teach specific meditation techniques such as slow, deep, soft-belly breathing and mindful walking and eating. All have been shown to decrease levels of anxiety and stress, enhance mood and optimism, and promote greater emotional stability and more reliable judgment.”
A healthful diet emphasizing vegetables, fruit and healthy fats; strong support from friends and family; creative activities; and connecting with a higher power comprise Gordon’s integrative prescription for a happy life.
Kathleen Barnes is author of numerous natural health books, including Food Is Medicine. Connect at KathleenBarnes.com.