Globally, depression affects more than 264 million people of all ages, making it one of the world’s leading illnesses. The causes and effects of depression can be complex, making treatment tricky and the following true: What works for one may not work for another.
Many people take prescription antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac or Zoloft. Antidepressants can work wonderfully for some people; however, some drugs can be expensive or have unfavorable side effects, leading many to find alternative forms of treatment.
If you are looking for options to treat depression naturally or want some natural ways to supplement your treatment, check out these alternatives to standard antidepressant medication. However, keep in mind that this article is not a replacement for professional mental health help, so talking to your doctor to discuss your treatment is your best bet.
1. SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine)
S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) is a naturally occurring chemical in the body, regulating key functions in living cells. It is a prescription drug in Europe but available over the counter in the United States. SAM-e works by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, creating an effect similar to antidepressant medication.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), several research studies show promising results in SAM-e treating depression. However, research is still developing on the effectiveness of SAM-e, and the NCCIH reports that this supplement may not be safe for those with bipolar disorder, as it may increase mania symptoms.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to naturally improve mood and decrease depression, according to research studies, including a 2009 analysis of 20 clinical studies. Similarly, a 2015 study concluded that omega-3 acids may help both adults and children with depression.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like the following:
- Fish (like tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines)
- Nuts and seeds (like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts)
- Plant oils (flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil)
If you do not like or want to eat fish, you can also take omega-3 supplements, available over the counter. Some people report mild gastrointestinal effects from taking omega-3s.
3. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is an extract of the flower Hypericum perforatum and has been widely used for treating mild to moderate depression. How St. John’s Wort works to alleviate depression is unclear, but some studies report that this herb works similarly to antidepressants, changing how the brain processes serotonin and dopamine.
Research has shown that St. John’s Wort is more effective than a placebo at treating depression. While this herb has been studied quite a bit with promising research, some experts say the evidence of its efficacy is still inconclusive.
A word of caution: Combining this herb with other antidepressants such as Prozac may result in serotonin syndrome, so it’s always best to check with your doctor first.
4. Vitamin D
It would make sense that sunshine provides one of the best natural antidepressants: Vitamin D. Deficiencies in vitamin D may play a role in depression, and supplementing your lifestyle with this important nutrient can be an effective treatment.
Exposure to sunlight accounts for over 90% of the Vitamin D requirement that most individuals require. There is debate within the scientific community on how much vitamin D is enough for most people; for example, the U.S. National Academy of Medicine states that 600-800 IU is sufficient for the majority of the population, but the U.S. Endocrine Society recommends 1,500-2,000 IU daily.
If you cannot get daily sunlight, consider taking a Vitamin D supplement or consuming foods high in this mineral like milk, mushrooms, seafood, and eggs (particularly the yolks).
Exercise has been widely studied as a natural antidepressant and with positive results. Harvard Medical School published an article with research that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in some cases.
Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry, states:
“In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.”
Exercising to relieve depression doesn’t have to be intense (Don’t think training for a marathon, unless, of course, you want to!)
Starting small, even five minutes a day of walking and working up to a longer span of time will be effective. The key is to choose something you like to do: walking, bicycling, swimming, or weight training, for example. Working up to 30 minutes or so of exercise every day has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety and improved physical health, cognitive functioning, and psychological well-being.
Factors that Worsen Depression
While natural antidepressants can help alleviate depression, certain substances inevitably make it worse, like the following:
The connection between alcohol and depression is fierce and not in a good way. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the central nervous system, and when used long-term, it can worsen depression.
An interesting point, according to American Addiction Centers, is that depression can put a person at a greater risk for an alcohol problem, but the inverse is even more common. Depression can increase during a battle with alcoholism, leading to a destructive downward spiral.
It makes sense that the food you eat can directly impact how you feel. Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows a link between higher levels of depression and anxiety among women and a “western diet” of processed or fried foods, refined grains, and sugar.
The article “Diets and Depression” from Harvard Health Publishingreports the findings of a research study:
“A dietary pattern characterized by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grain, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy and antioxidants and low intakes of animal foods was apparently associated with a decreased risk of depression.”
Lack of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep can produce a host of negative effects, and depression is one of them. Some research suggests that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to have depression than those who don’t.
Similarly, sleep disturbance is a symptom of depression, so understanding whether it is a cause or effect can be tricky. If you have trouble sleeping, limiting caffeine, daily exercise, and keeping a regular schedule can help. However, if you feel as though you have tried everything and still struggle to sleep, seeing your doctor is a good idea.
The Bottom Line?
Depression is a mental health disorder that affects millions globally. Traditionally, depression is treated with medication and therapy, but some people may want to try a more natural route first or in conjunction with their current treatment plan.
While there are natural antidepressants with evidence-based research available to try, the bottom line is you should discuss your options with a healthcare provider to find a treatment plan that works best for you.