Depression has affected humanity for most of its history; somehow it’s on the rise now, or it’s just being noticed and acknowledged more often. One out of five Americans is on at least one daily antidepressant. Commercial antidepressants come with heavy side effects and horrible withdrawal symptoms, and they don’t really work on mild cases of depression. Instead of antidepressants for transient blues, try an herbal remedy first. These powerful remedies have centuries of home use behind them.
One of the world’s most costly and highly valued herbs, saffron has been used in Middle Eastern cuisine since ancient Babylon. The gold colored herb also treats depression, by raising the serotonin level in the brain. A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, which followed thirty-eight people over six weeks, found that saffron is as potent as Prozac in relieving depression. And saffron carries none of the nasty side effects that fluoxetine (Prozac) does—lost libido, dry mouth, sweating, etc.
2. St. John’s wort
An herbaceous shrub with yellow flowers, St. John’s wort has been used to relieve depression since at least ancient Greece (the Greeks recorded recommended doses and patient cases). St. John’s wort is made into extracts, teas, and capsules; its main plant chemical is hypercin, a molecule that works on neurotransmitters in a manner similar to Prozac, raising the amount of serotonin in the brain. This herb does interact with other medicines, like blood thinners, birth control pills, and some cancer treatment drugs.
Some health care professionals think depression rates are on the rise partially because people move around less now than really any other time in our history. A sedentary life encourages depression, heart disease, and many other health problems. Regular exercise relieves depression; it changes the amount of circulating norepinephrine and serotonin, two neurochemicals that regulate moods. Moderate to heavy exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the feel-good neurochemicals behind runner’s high. Three to six exercise sessions a week, of twenty to thirty minutes each, has been found to greatly reduce mild depression.
A medical practice with five thousand years of Chinese history behind it, acupuncture cures many conditions, including depression. Tiny needles, which you can barely feel, are inserted at certain points in the body; they redirect the flow of energy. Research done at the University of Arizona found that 64% of depressed women went into remission after acupuncture treatment, compared with 27% of the control group.
5. Light therapy
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of mild depression tied to melatonin levels. Sunlight influences the body’s levels of melatonin (a mood and sleep regulating neurochemical); in winter in northern climates, the lack of sunlight can cause transient but strong depression in people with SAD. Light therapy is a very effective remedy; you sit next to a beaming box of light for fifteen minutes daily at the outset, working up to two hours a day. Another option is to sit by a full spectrum light source; both of these treatments induce the body to create melatonin.
6. Cognitive behavioral therapy
Therapy was developed as a medical technology in the 20th century, though it incorporates some knowledge that is far older. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, reaches back to the Buddha’s teachings, and it’s an effective depression treatment. CBT is s short-term therapy, ten to twenty meetings on average, where behavior patterns are identified and new habits are learned and practiced. Feelings are triggered by thoughts; when you are aware of your thoughts, you can learn to let them go and avoid experiencing negative feelings.
The other side of CBT (and they are often taught together), meditation is the way millions of people relate to sadness and anxiety. Meditation is a time for examining emotions and thoughts; you can think or feel anything while meditating, but you learn to let the thought go, and your mind settle on the present moment. The more you think certain thoughts, and experience certain emotional responses, the more deeply ingrained these patterns become, the more they hold you captive. Meditation is a way to break free from depression. One study compared a group of people taking antidepressants with a group who stopped taking the drugs and started meditating. 47% of the meditators relapsed into depression; 60% of the people on medication did (while still on the pills). First time meditators will find going to a mindfulness center or weekly sitting group helpful for learning the basic ways to meditate.
8. Reduce caffeine
Caffeine is useful for staying alert and speeding up metabolism; but it’s not a friend to mood disorders, like depression. Caffeine highs are followed by big crashes; if you’re already feeling low, the caffeine drop hurts more. Too much caffeine interferes with the neurochemicals that regulate mood, like serotonin. A study of the urine of coffee drinkers showed an increase of 5-HIA (a serotonin protein); its presence in waste material indicates less of it in the bloodstream, where it would be regulating mood.
Various mood influencing neurochemicals—serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine—can only be produced with B vitamins, particularly B 12. B vitamins must be ingested through food, or with supplements; lean fish, cheeses, bell peppers, and spinach are all good sources. Pumpkin seeds are a great choice, as they also contain magnesium (see the next entry on this list).
Frequently left out of modern diets, magnesium is a crucial mineral that humans must ingest. Magnesium allows the body to produce energy, steady the heartbeat, synthesize DNA or RNA, and maintain healthy levels of neurochemicals. Fast and processed foods have virtually no magnesium. Introduce magnesium rich foods into your life and you will have more energy and feel better, all the way around. Almonds, cashews, bananas, spinach, soy milk, cooked black beans, kale, and chard are good sources of magnesium.