We all know someone who suffers from depression or have been depressed ourselves. The problem comes in when we can’t get over the depression and it becomes chronic.
The World Health Organisation estimates that depression affects 300 million people worldwide.1 According to Mental Health UK, 1 in 6 adults experiences anxiety or depression and 1 in 5 adults has considered suicide at some point.2 In the US it is estimated that over 12% of the population uses antidepressants.3 Depression affects more women than men. In one study, in older people, it is thought to affect ±70% of older people in some countries.4
Even more worrying is that more and more young people are being affected, with one study showing that it has doubled in teens in the last decade. In South Africa, it is estimated that 1 in 4 South African teens have attempted suicide and 1 in 3 hospital admissions for suicide involve youth,as a result of depression.5
Diagnosis is generally by psychological testing (the most common being the Hamilton Rating Scale of Depression or ‘HRS’). The trouble with this approach is that, while it can determine that a person is suffering from depression, it does nothing to identify the cause. Today it is generally recognized that an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the body is responsible for depression. Surely the obvious solution would be to check which neurotransmitters are lacking and increase them. Not so – diagnosis, as already mentioned, is almost entirely done by psychological testing, which reveals nothing about what is going on in the chemistry of the brain and the body. In addition to chemical imbalances, it is now widely recognized that nutritional deficiencies and environmental factors, such as stress, play major roles in causing depression.
Treatments for depression are almost entirely limited to the prescription of anti-depressant drugs. The problem with these drugs is twofold:
1) they do nothing, or at best very little, to rectify the underlying cause of depression.
2) they have serious side effects and risk factors.
The side effects include
- decreased sex drive
- weight gain
- dry mouth
In addition, there is growing evidence that anti-depressants are not nearly as effective as they are claimed to be. One study in the UK said ‘the NICE guideline development group has recommended that anti-depressants should not be used for the initial treatment of mild depression, because the risk–benefit ratio is poor.’6In another study it was found that the improvement gained by taking anti-depressants vs. placebos was negligible in most cases.7 Surely these results are not good enough to warrant the side effects?
Anti-depressants have also been linked to weight gain, high blood sugar, memory loss, bone density loss and Cushing’s Syndrome, a hormone disorder that can cause insulin resistance and diabetes, high blood pressure, increased suicidal tendencies (a review of studies involving over 87600 people showed up to a 66% increase in suicides8), increased risk of heart disease and addiction.
The risk factors are equally bad, as can be seen by the following.
- People over 65 have been shown to be at increased risk of falling, fractures and bone density loss.
- Newborn babies whose mothers used antidepressants, especially late in the pregnancy, may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as tremors, restlessness, respiratory problems and weak cry.
- Teens and young adults have an increased risk of committing suicide. In fact, this is so common that the FDA in the US has mandated that all antidepressants carry a warning to this effect on the label.
- People who suffer from bipolar may actually experience worse symptoms and manic episodes.
N.B. Please note that I’m not suggesting that you stop taking antidepressant medication if you are already on it. Always check with your medical professional before changing dosage or frequency of use.
Some good news – there are viable natural alternatives.
Research shows that depression can be triggered by factors such as poor diet, deficiencies of certain nutrients, negative thinking habits, stress, low blood sugar, lack of exercise and high homocysteine levels. All of these factors can be addressed with simple lifestyle changes, without the need for drugs.
The starting point is to realize that the responsibility for your health, physical as well as mental, lies with you and not with the medical profession. Just this realization, that you CAN do something about your situation can often lead to improvement. Having a good, hard look at your thinking patterns (negative or positive), diet and exercise habits, can lead to changes that will make profound differences in your wellbeing.
Optimistic people generally suffer far less from depression than pessimists. By changing your thinking patterns (simple but not easy), you can radically change your mental state.
Some tips to help:
– counting your blessing daily rather than focusing on what you don’t have.
– mixing with positive people who encourage you and avoiding the negative ones who pull you down.
– only reading, watching and listening to uplifting, positive material.
– developing a strong faith. Studies have shown that people with a strong faith have lower rates of depression.
– practicing monitoring your thoughts and when a negative thought pops into your mind recognize it and change it for a positive one. Refuse to dwell on the negative!
Foods greatly influence the brain’s behaviour. A 6 year study of over 12000 individuals showed that people who consumed the most trans and saturated fats, prevalent in modern processed and fast foods, had a 48% higher risk of suffering from depression.9
Our levels of neurotransmitters, which regulate our behaviour, are directly related to the nutrients in our food. For example, serotonin is the neurotransmitter most commonly associated with mood – it is a “feel good” hormone. To make serotonin we need an amino acid called tryptophan, which is found in many protein rich foods such as eggs, meat, fish, beans and seeds like sunflower seeds.
To convert the tryptophan to serotonin Omega 3, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium are required, so a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains is important. Minimizing sugar, refined carbohydrates, fried foods, colourants and preservatives will make a huge difference. Supplementing with a good multi- vitamin/mineral, vitamin B-complex and Omega 3 (all from whole food, natural sources) can make an improvement. A handful of sunflower seeds is a great mood booster!
High blood sugar levels also increase the incidence of depression. Sugar has very little nutrient value and depletes the B vitamins and chromium, both of which help prevent depression.10,11
Omega 3 is also essential to help combat depression. Omega 3 is needed by the body to make receptors in the brain for neurotransmitters and for normal brain functioning.12,13,14,15
There is increasing research that shows that high homocysteine blood levels can play a role in depression.16,17,18 Unfortunately homocysteine levels are not routinely tested. Homocysteine also plays a major role in heart disease, so it may be a good idea to get your levels checked. Fortunately, it’s easy to control with natural means. The B vitamins, zinc and magnesium all help lower homocysteine.
The very latest research indicates that the health of our digestive system can play a role in depression.19 We now know that we have a “second brain” in our gut, containing ±100 million neurons (nerve cells) and 95% of the body’s serotonin. Imbalances in intestinal flora, whether from bad diet or use of antibiotics can cause disruption of the signals between the gut and the brain, lowering the immune system and affecting mood. A diet high in fibre and supplementation with a good probiotic can assist in preserving the health of our digestive system, promoting a strong immune system and stable moods.
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of regular exercise in reducing depression.20,21,22,23 Exercising releases endorphins and encephalins, chemicals which lift the mood and help prevent depression. Exercising in sunlight offers enhanced benefits, apart from the fresh air. Studies have shown that exercising in “full spectrum light” has a major effect on depression, decreasing subjects’ HRS scores by 50% & more.24 It is thought that the sunlight increases the production of serotonin.
All of these factors – diet, controlling thinking and exercising are choices we can all make. The first step to defeating depression is realizing that you can do something to overcome it. By making good lifestyle choices and working to maintain a positive attitude you can go a long way to living a happy, vibrant, depression free life. The choice is yours.
8 D. Fergusson et al, ‘Association Between Suicide Attempts & Selective Serotonin Re- uptake Inhibitors…..’ British Medical Journal vol. 330, 2005, pg 396
10 J.R. Davidson et al, ‘Effectiveness of Chromium in Atypical Depression….’ Biological Psychiatry, vol.53(3), 2003, pg. 261-4
11 L. Christensen, ‘ Psychological Distress and Diet – Effects of Sucrose….’ Journal of Applied Nutrition, vol. 40(1), 1988, pg, 44-50
23 L. Craft & F. Perna, ‘The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed”, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 6(3), 2004, pg. 104-11
24 S. Leppamaki et al, ‘Drop-out and Mood Improvement, A Randomised …..with Light Exposure…’ BMC Psychiatry, vol. 4(1), 2004, pg.22