Surprisingly effective ways to clear the clouds
Chances are you know someone (maybe you) who struggles with depression. After all, 17.1 million adults and more than 2 million children in the United States suffer from a depressive disorder—and those are just the people that we know about.
Depression strikes almost everyone at some point in their lives. For some people, that depression deepens and lasts for months, even years. It’s more than just a profound sense of sadness. Chronic depression brings on feelings of despair and hopelessness while it drains joy and energy. It’s a serious health condition that can leave its victims unable to cope with life.
The standard treatment for depression includes a variety of prescription drugs that have a less than 50 percent success rate and often cause nasty side effects—sometimes making the depression even worse.
Luckily, you can turn to safe, natural alternatives that work at least as well as those drugs without causing their unwanted side effects.
How Depression Works
We still don’t fully understand what causes depression, though genetics, traumatic events, and chronic stress seem to play key roles. What we do know is that during depressive episodes, the brain signals that spark positive feelings—like joy and contentment—don’t connect. Brain chemistry changes and levels of “feel-good” brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) drop off significantly, causing symptoms such as:
- Lost interest in favorite activities
- Changes in appetite and eating habits
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping much more than usual
- Extreme fatigue and lack of motivation
- Feelings of despair, hopelessness, and worthlessness
- Physical aches and pains (with no obvious cause)
- Lost desire to continue living
- Frequent thoughts about death and suicide
For decades, drug treatments have zeroed in on neurotransmitters, but it turns out that several other factors affect depression. Recent research discovered that inflammation plays a key role in depression and other mental health disorders. In fact, 58 percent of people with depression have elevated levels of C-reactive protein, a key indicator of inflammation. Along with that, people with depression tend to have higher levels of oxidative stress and the stress hormone cortisol. All three of these factors can increase the chance of depression and make symptoms more severe.
Know Your Brain Chemicals
Your brain houses billions of cells called neurons and a complex mix of special chemicals called neurotransmitters that affect every thought, action, and mood. The neurotransmitters most closely connected to depression include:
- Serotonin, responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being
- Dopamine, responsible for motivation, reward, and pleasure
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), responsible for calm and relaxation
- Norepinephrine, responsible for mental energy and focus
Then there’s cortisol, which doesn’t quite fit in with the neurotransmitter crowd, but has a profound impact on depression and anxiety. Commonly known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol gives you that burst of energy for “fight or flight” when you sense danger. As soon as the danger disappears, cortisol levels are supposed to decrease so everything can go back to normal. But with chronic stress, cortisol levels stay high all the time, exhausting your brain and preventing normal neurotransmitter function.
Different Types of Depression
Depression comes in many forms, and some are harder to identify than others. That leaves many people struggling with debilitating symptoms without realizing their cause. The main types of depression include:
Major depressive disorder (MDD). MDD is what most people think of when they’re talking about depression. This form causes several symptoms of depression that last for more than two weeks.
Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia). Persistent depressive disorder is a chronic form of depression, where symptoms are present almost every day for at least two years. Symptoms may become more or less severe throughout that time, but rarely (if ever) disappear completely.
Post-partum depression. Post-partum depression is caused by the significant hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and childbirth. More than “baby blues,” post-partum depression causes significant symptoms including extreme exhaustion and unshakeable sadness.
Atypical depression. Atypical depression follows a different pattern, with more specific depressive symptoms including excessive eating and sleeping, extreme reactivity, crushing physical fatigue, and oversensitivity in the face of rejection. While these symptoms persist, they get interrupted by periods of feeling good when positive events occur.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a cyclical form of MDD, triggering depressive symptoms during the lower-light, winter months.
Depression can also be characterized as mild, moderate, or severe depending on the symptoms, how often they occur, and their severity.
The Dark Side of Antidepressant Drugs
In most cases, as soon as a doctor diagnoses depression, the prescription pad comes out. Antidepressants are among the best-selling drugs in the world. In fact, antidepressant sales are expected to hit $15.98 billion by 2023.
First-line antidepressants include SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors), and NDRIs (norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors). These drugs work by preventing your brain from re-absorbing specific neurotransmitters to keep levels artificially high and available longer. They’re known to cause dozens of unwanted side effects, including sexual dysfunction, weight gain, worsening depression, and increased suicidal thoughts and actions.
Second-string antidepressants are usually brought in only when a series of first-line drugs fails. These older medications include tricyclic antidepressants and MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). Doctors prescribe these less frequently than the first-line drugs mainly because of their dangerous food and drug interactions and harsher side effects, which include involuntary muscle jerks, abnormal nerve sensations, dangerously low blood pressure, and increased suicide risk.
Prescription drugs do make some difference for around 42 percent of patients. That means antidepressants work less than half the time, forcing patients to try drug after drug in search of one that helps at all.
When patients don’t improve using a single drug, doctors prescribe add-ons, either additional antidepressants or other types of mood-altering drugs (like anti-psychotics). This can lead to people taking two… three… even four or more prescription medications to treat their depression. Even then, a full 30 percent of those patients don’t get relief from their symptoms. Worse, the combination of side effects can make their lives even harder to deal with.
Luckily, you don’t have to risk harmful side effects to find relief. Nature provides equally effective and much safer solutions for depression.
Curcumin acts on multiple pathways to calm inflammation in the brain, reduce oxidative stress, gently rebalance neurotransmitters, and produce fresh, new brain cells. A highly absorbable form of curcumin called BCM-95 (also known as Curcugreen) was found to be at least as effective as two prescription antidepressants, fluoxetine (Prozac) and imipramine (Tofranil) in a head-to-head clinical study. Plus, patients taking the BCM-95 didn’t experience any adverse side effects. Another placebo-controlled study found that BCM-95 started lifting depression in patients with major depressive disorders in as early as four weeks. In addition, BCM-95 seems to help people with atypical depression, a form that usually doesn’t respond to drugs. The clinically proven dose is 500 mg of BCM-95, taken twice daily.
Saffron lifts the weight of depression by increasing serotonin levels, preserving GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), and reducing cortisol. This ancient, natural medicine has been shown in several clinical studies to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. A meta-analysis of eight clinical trials found that saffron outperformed placebos and worked as effectively as fluoxetine to treat depression—but saffron also offered extra protection against inflammation and oxidative stress. Another meta-analysis of 23 studies reported similarly exciting findings: Saffron worked substantially better than placebo to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression, and boosted the effectiveness of antidepressants. Saffron has also been proven safe for nursing mothers to take, clearing symptoms of post-partum depression in 96 percent of patients. An effective dose is 30 mg of saffron daily.
Using saffron and curcumin together increases their antidepressant and anti-anxiety powers, which has been shown in clinical trials to bring substantial relief to patients with major depressive disorder. The combination was especially effective in patients with atypical depression.
St. John’s Wort has been studied extensively for its ability to relieve depression without causing negative side effects in numerous clinical trials. A meta-analysis of 27 clinical trials found that St. John’s wort worked at least as well as SSRIs to improve depressive symptoms and clear depression completely without side effects. The best results have been found using St. John’s wort extracts standardized to contain 0.3 percent hypericin, the compound largely responsible for the plant’s antidepressant activity. The effective dose is 900 mg daily of standardized St. John’s wort, taken either as 300 mg three times per day or in a special once-daily 900 mg form.
Rhodiola takes a different approach to easing depression. Rhodiola is an adaptogen—an herb that rebalances and normalizes body functions, especially in people with chronic stress. This herb brings antidepressant effects by increasing the activity of key neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, and by decreasing stress-related symptoms like fatigue and anxiety. The main, mood-lifting compound in rhodiola is called rosavin. The most effective rhodiola extracts are standardized to at least 3 percent rosavin. An effective dosage is 100 to 150 mg of standardized rhodiola extract daily.
Omega-3s play a critical role in cognition, mood, and the overall nervous system. Because of this, numerous studies suggest that a daily omega-3 supplement can be helpful for easing depression. For post-partum depression, in particular, using a vectorized omega-3 during pregnancy decreases the risk by 50 percent. Taking three tablets daily for post-partum depression can be very helpful.
Hemp, a plant in the Cannabis sativa family, works by balancing signals in the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is involved in virtually every function in the body. Special ECS receptors called CB1 are concentrated in the brain where they control things like memory and mood using special compounds called cannabinoids. When the ECS is out of balance, it can bring on symptoms of depression and anxiety. Full-spectrum hemp extracts contain a complete roster of natural plant cannabinoids, including cannabidiol, or CBD, that gently rebalance the ECS, lifting those symptoms without causing negative side effects. An effective dosage is 50 mg daily of full-spectrum, concentrated hemp oil once or twice daily. Higher doses can be taken if desired.
Hemp Is Not Marijuana
Both hemp and marijuana are plants in the Cannabis sativa family, but they’re as different as house cats and tigers. Hemp plants are selectively grown to contain low levels of THC (the psychoactive compound in marijuana). In fact, to be considered hemp legally, THC content must be 0.3% or less. You can’t get high from hemp.