Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in Australia and around the globe. It is estimated that 1 in 7 people will suffer from some type of depression in their lifetime.
It’s normal to feel a little sad or low at times, but being depressed is so much more. It can be a very serious, debilitating and a potentially life-threatening illness. People who are depressed can find it extremely difficult to function on a day-to-day basis. They commonly have feelings of worthlessness and anxiety, often lack energy and motivation, and have poor concentration and sleep. Significant weight loss or weight gain is also commonly seen in depressed individuals.
Contributing factors that are associated with a greater risk of developing depression include hormonal imbalances (particularly women pre-menstrually, post-natally and during peri-menopause), environmental factors (financial and work stress, relationship problems, death of a loved one), neurotransmitter imbalances and nutritional deficiencies, certain prescription drugs (corticosteroids, the contraceptive pill), regular recreational drug use, and excessive alcohol consumption. Those with a family history of depression are also more likely to suffer from the illness at some point in their life.
Anti-depressants are generally the first port of call for the treatment of depression. Antidepressants do have their place, especially for those suffering severe depression, however problems do exist with their effectiveness and their unwanted side effects can lead to poor compliance. Common side effects associated with anti-depressants include weight gain, sexual dysfunction, tachycardia, and drowsiness.
There is definitely a great need for complementary and orthodox practitioners to work together for the greater health and treatment of their depressive patients. Herbal and nutritional medicines along with diet plays a huge role in the management and treatment of depression.
After consulting with a medical practitioner for diagnosis, consulting with an integrative doctor, naturopath or herbalist to discuss the best natural treatments for depression is recommended before going down the pharmaceutical path. A counsellor or psychologist should also be an integral part of any treatment plan. If pharmaceutical medications are required, herbs and other natural medicines have been shown to help improve the effectiveness of anti-depressants along with helping to lessen their side effects.
MOOD BOOSTING NUTRITION
Good nutrition plays a fundamental role in the management and treatment of depression. We need optimal amounts of specific nutrients, including omega-3 essential fatty acids, B vitamins, iron, vitamin D, to support the production of neurotransmitters that enhance our mood, sleep and emotional wellbeing.
There is a definite link between fast food consumption and depression. Common nutritional deficiencies associated with the standard Western diet, rich in refined sugars and fats, can make you more susceptible to developing depression.
There is now plenty of scientific evidence supporting the importance of eating a wholesome diet for emotional health and prevention of depression. A well-balanced diet delivers brain-boosting nutrients that help regulate brain chemistry to support emotional health. Specific amino acids, vitamins and minerals received through a healthy diet are needed to produce the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid). Deficiencies in these neurotransmitters are associated with the development of depression. (1)
The healthy Mediterranean diet rich in healthy fats from olive oil and fish and fresh fruits and vegetables, with lower amounts of red meat and dairy, has been found to be associated with a lower risk of depression. (2)
REDUCE CAFFEINE & ALCOHOL
Alcohol and coffee are also a common part of the Western diet. Excessive amounts of caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and depressive symptoms. Too much caffeine can negatively affect dopamine transmission which will alter normal neurotransmitter function. Too much caffeine will also disrupt sleep, deplete essential B nutrients needed for neurotransmitter production, and will put stress on the adrenal glands. Adrenal stress is associated with depression, fatigue and the inability to cope with stress. Drinking to much alcohol can also exacerbate depressive symptoms. Alcohol is a known depressant. Switching your morning cup of coffee to a caffeine-free herbal tea like chamomile, licorice, holy basil, ginger, or peppermint is a great way to lower your caffeine intake while reaping the health benefits herbal teas have to offer. Green tea is another excellent lower caffeine option.
AMINO ACIDS NEEDED TO PRODUCE KEY NEUROTRANSMITTERS
Including adequate good quality protein in the diet is paramount for anyone suffering from depression. Protein plays a vital role in the synthesis of important neurotransmitters needed for emotional health and wellbeing.
Serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel happy and content, is manufactured in the body using tryptophan. This essential amino acid cannot be produced in the body so it must be supplied through the diet or supplementation. Tryptophan is also needed to produce melatonin which is vital for sleep. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia and fatigue. Supplementing with tryptophan has been shown to help restore serotonin levels and improve quality of sleep. (5)
A study published in JAMA psychiatry reported that people with clinical depression also have significantly lower brain levels of dopamine. (6) Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for creating a positive mood and enjoyment of life. People with low dopamine levels feel a loss of pleasure for things they once enjoyed like exercising, socialising with friends, or sex. They have poor concentration and focus and little or no motivation. The amino acid tyrosine is a natural dopamine booster. Tyrosine is converted to dopamine in the body, which makes it beneficial for enhancing mood and motivation.
Methionine is an amino acid that is needed by the body to make S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). SAMe is a precursor to serotonin and dopamine. Supplementing with SAMe in the treatment of depression has been shown to be very effective without the common side effects of anti-depressants. Supplementing with SAMe can also boost the effectiveness of pharmaceutical anti-depressants. (7)
The best food sources of these key amino acids include eggs, poultry, red meat, fish and seafood, dairy, soy and legumes, nuts and seeds. Bananas are also a great source of tryptophan.
According to a Japanese study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, higher green tea consumption is associated with a lower prevalence of depressive symptoms. (8) Polyphenols such as flavonoids found in high levels in green tea have been found to have anti-depressive properties. Scientists have also discovered that L-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, has an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effect. (9) L-theanine can help improve mood by increasing brain dopamine, GABA and serotonin levels. (10) GABA is a neurotransmitter that inhibits the activity of nerve cells. Improving GABA levels will help promote relaxation to relieve anxiety and improve mood and sleep. People with depression have lower brain GABA levels.
The health of your digestive system is closely related to your emotional wellbeing. Our gut plays a key role in guarding against the development of anxiety and depression-related disorders. Most of our brain chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, GABA and norepinephrine are produced in the gut. Dysbiosis and gut inflammation have been linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. Incorporating probiotic rich foods in the diet and supplementing with a good quality broad spectrum probiotic will help restore normal gut microbiome to help improve mood and promote emotional health. Studies have shown that probiotic supplementation is effective at alleviating depression and anxiety symptoms. (11) Some of the best probiotic rich foods include yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimichi, kombucha, and kvass.
ANTI-DEPRESSANT HERBAL MEDICINES
St John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum): St John’s wort is a medicinal herb commonly used by naturopaths and herbalists for its anti-depressant effect. St John’s wort’s mood boosting action is due to its ability to increase the availability of serotonin, dopamine and norephinephrine to the brain. Studies have shown that St John’s wort is beneficial for treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety, and is just as effective as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Prozac and Zoloft. (12) St John’s wort has also been found to be successful in treating SAD, and mood swings associated with pre-menstrual syndrome and menopause. St John’s wort can interact with certain medications so take caution when taking this herb with pharmaceutical anti-depressants, sedatives, migraine medications or heart medications.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea): Rhodiola or golden root has been used for thousands of years in Europe and across Asia to improve stamina, strength and mental performance. Rhodiola is another valuable ‘adaptogenic’ herb that is beneficial for improving depression and intense physical and emotional stress. (13) Studies have shown that rhodiola can significantly reduce mild to moderate depression, without the side effects of pharmaceutical anti-depressants. (14) Rhodiola enhances the stability of dopamine and supports its reuptake, which results in improvements in depression, anxiety, and fatigue, along with an increased ability to handle stress. (15) Rhodiola also increases the blood brain barrier permeability to compounds needed to make dopamine and serotonin, including 5-HTP. (31) 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): Lemon balm is a member of the mint family that has long been used for its soothing medicinal qualities and aromatic properties. The Arabs in the 11th century introduced lemon balm as a remedy for depression and anxiety. They believed it caused the mind and heart to be merry. Today lemon balm is popular among herbalists for treating insomnia and anxiety-related conditions. Lemon balm has a sedative and calming effect on the nervous system. Lemon balm and one of its key active compounds rosmarinic acid boosts levels of GABA in the brain by inhibiting the enzyme that normally breaks down this relaxing neurotransmitter. (16) Elevated GABA levels can help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
Bodhi Organic PositiviTEA contains the mood boosting herbs St John's Wort, Rhodiola and Lemon balm.
By Lisa Guy, naturopath and founder of Bodhi Organic Tea.