Depression treatment is often simplified into two categories: medication and therapy. However, that does not discount other treatments. Far from it, in fact. Alternative treatments are just that – treatments that are less commonly offered, but are still treatments, proving their efficacy. Yet among the many different alternative treatment options for depression, one that I’d argue is the most controversial is herbal treatment.
At their core, pharmaceutical drugs are either directly derived from nature, or synthesized based on derived chemicals and compounds. However, there are many “natural medicines” that are therapeutically effective without pharmacological intervention. These herbal supplements can be effective in treating depression, but the operative is “can”. Just like medication, it’s important to approach herbal remedies with caution and the understanding that they may or may not treat the symptoms of your condition, or that they may negatively interact with other medication you’re taking. Because most herbal supplements are not as tightly regulated or thoroughly researched as drugs are, it’s difficult to endorse an herb. Kava root, for example, has historically been used in South Pacific cultures in local beverages, and anecdotal evidence as well as some research suggests it has relaxant and anti-anxiety effects. However, it’s unknown if the effects of the root are therapeutically relevant in most people, or only work for some. What this means is that you should give herbal supplements a try – but know that not all of them are going to be effective, and just like medication, it’s important to shop around to see what feels best.
What Herbal Remedies Are There?
There is no shortage of herbal remedies for depression. Some of these are more effective than others – St. John’s wort has the most research surrounding it, while kava is effective not only for depressive thinking, but for anxiety as well.
- John’s Wort
St. John’s wort has long been considered an effective form of treatment for depression, greatly affecting serotonin levels in the brain. However, concerns exist that it is not consistently effective in treating depression, and that it may not help most people, as well as the fact that it can interact negatively with certain medication. Only take St. John’s wort after consulting a professional, and after a proper diagnosis of depression. If you’re sure there are no significant risks, it can reduce depressive symptoms.
Kava, a drink made from the Ava root, is native to Polynesian cultures and has been shown as an effective anti-anxiety medication. However, concerns surrounding kava’s effects on the liver have rendered it banned in Canada and Europe. It’s still available in the US.
Saffron is a very expensive spice, usually harvested in the Middle East. It consists of the red stigmas and styles of a beautiful lavender flower. Each strand or thread is handpicked, which is partially why it’s expensive. However, if you can afford to regularly indulge in saffron – through flavored rice, couscous, soups, and teas – the herb may improve depressive symptoms.
Valerian root is native to Europe and West Asia and is usually used to treat insomnia and anxiety. It may also have an effect in cases of depression.
Chamomile extract, taken orally, has been proven to have a significant anti-depressive effect – meaning, enough to warrant that it is more effective than a placebo might be.
The Hawthorn bush’s leaves berries and flowers are used for a myriad of natural treatments, including deworming, healing rashes, and treating heart disease. Some research shows it may also have an anti-depressive effect.
Native to East Asia, this distinctive plant with fan-shaped leaves is legendary in Asian medicine and is one of the oldest tree species on the planet. Its medicinal use spans thousands of years, and it may be effective in helping relieve depressive symptoms, alongside respiratory issues, memory problems, dizziness, leg pain, and more.
Other Options & Supplements
Herbal supplements are not the only ones in the market. These alternative supplements are all compounds sourced naturally and sold as supplements rather than medication.
Sourced mostly from fish, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for brain health. We get omega-6 from a variety of sources, but omega-3 is rarer. Most vegetarian diets struggle to maintain adequate levels of omega-3, and it’s a good idea to supplement. A significant imbalance between the two fatty acids is linked to health issues.
5-hydroxytryptophan is a chemical linked to improving and better managing mood disorders, but it should not be mixed with other serotonin-increasing supplements, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as SSRIs, SNRIs, etc.)
S-adenosylmethionine is also available as a supplement but is naturally produced by the body. Studies show it’s potentially effective for depression treatment, but it is not therapeutically approved by the FDA. It’s made from methionine, an essential amino acid, and ATP, the energy chemical produced during cellular respiration.
Dehydroepiandrosterone is a natural steroid and hormone, which has been linked to depression. Low DHEA may exacerbate depressive symptoms, while a dietary supplementation of the hormone can improve them. Because it’s a hormone, this is a potentially dangerous supplement, and it’s important to consult a medical professional and get a thorough blood test to determine whether it’s safe to take DHEA, and how much. Only DHEA sourced from animal protein is effective for depression treatment.
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate and is often prescribed to pregnant women and children. Foods fortified with folic acid are also abundant, and work as supplementation for a balanced diet. Legumes and leafy vegetables are a good source of folate, while folic acid supplements have been shown to increase the effectiveness of antidepressants.
Food Sources vs. Supplements
The rule of hand is that if you can get something through your diet, it’s best to do so rather than utilize supplements. However, there are exceptions. Certain supplements are highly bioavailable, and very difficult to source effectively from food. For example: animal protein contains tryptophan, which increases the production of serotonin. But 5-HTP is an effective supplement for individuals with depression, where dietary tryptophan isn’t enough to make a difference. Zinc and folate, on the other hand, is best sourced through food rather than multivitamins.
Omega-3 is one example, as not everyone lives near an abundant source of fish, may be worried about mercury content, or may be allergic to seafood. While fish are a better source of omega-3 (because fish oil contains EPA, rather than the less bioavailable DHA), there are many algae and seed-based vegan options that are also hypoallergenic. Relying on plant-based sources of omega-3 is shown to improve the body’s ability to convert DHA into EPA, suggesting adaptability.
Canola oil and sunflower oil are generally quoted as good sources of omega-3, but they contain much more omega-6. Studies show that a severe imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 is not only detrimental to a person’s health, but extremely common due to the industrial usage of seed oils in food manufacturing, and for cooking. It’s best to avoid seed oils, and rely on virgin coconut oil, and virgin olive oil, and clarified butter for cooking (in moderation), as well as algae and flax seeds for omega-3.
Don’t forget your micros. It’s very tiring to keep track of everything you eat, but multivitamins are not an effective way to cover any nutrients you may be missing. Instead, simply try to get a balanced diet. Rely on local vegetables as well as homegrown herbs to cost-effectively cover your vitamin and mineral requirements.
While some fruits are high in vitamin A and C, it’s generally best to eat fruits sparingly and focus on consuming more vegetables, specifically carrots, leafy greens, and legumes. A modest amount of meat and fish can help cover zinc, iron, and B vitamins, as well as your basic amino acids. Finally, a complex and fiber-rich carb like potato or brown rice will aid in digestion. Even if your body requires a highly restrictive diet – one without lactose, legumes, and seafood, for example – there are still ways to source the nutrients you need.
Mixing Herbs and Medication
Be careful mixing medications with herbal supplements, and certain herbal supplements with each other. Just as medications have certain other medications that should be avoided due to contraindications – dangers and adverse effects – there are similar concerns when mixing certain supplements and drugs. Tryptophan supplements, any serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and St. John’s wort don’t play nice with each other, and can potentially lead to dangerous or fatal levels of serotonin in the body, causing heart attacks and more.
The safest thing to do is consult a medical professional who knows your exact medical history. Otherwise, make a list of medications that you take and see how they interact with supplements (and other medications). Many resources exist online for checking contraindications.
Take the Multi-Pronged Approach
The fight against depression is never over in a night, but a lot of it takes place overnight. Getting enough sleep is critical to treating a depression – as is getting a complete diet, avoiding foods that your body doesn’t agree with, regularly engaging in exercise, doing something reflective to take time and confront your feelings, and finding a way to maintain a healthy social life as well as a fulfilling job or place in school.
The way to treat a depression is multi-pronged, approaching the disease at all angles and focusing not solely on a single possible cause or symptom, but on the body and mind. Even then, there is no guarantee that your depression will go away in its entirety. Some people are born with a brain that struggles to process happiness. But all this means is that they will have to manage their depression over the course of a long and potentially happy life. Treatment today has come a long way to help people deal with all sorts of possible causes for depression, from individual environmental stressors, to significant trauma, hormone imbalances, a myriad of brain and endocrine diseases, gut problems, and much more.
It won’t just take you, but the cooperation of friends and family. No matter how skilled a therapist is, the people you spend the most time with ultimately have the most effect on you, and they must understand what your depression is and how to work with it.
Don’t rule anything out. From acupuncture to cognitive-behavioral therapy, there are dozens of approaches that have, in the past, have shown to be significantly helpful in the fight against depression. Take your time to see what works and what doesn’t, and to adjust your life accordingly. When you’re living with depression, you’re still living – and you can continue to enjoy life despite the disease.