It's so widespread that doctors and researchers have dubbed depression "the common cold of mental illness." Yet in spite of its frequent manifestation, few good treatments have emerged. "Simply put, most people who are depressed have something wrong with their brain chemistry," says William Walsh, PhD, brain researcher and president of Walsh Research Institute."Life experiences can make things worse, but usually the dominant problem is chemistry."
Now scientists are finding that the right balance of nutrients—combined with lifestyle changes—can alter that chemistry and effectively treat depression, often better than drugs. "The brain is, essentially, a chemical factory that constantly produces neurotransmitters—brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins that pass messages between nerve cells in the brain," says Walsh. "The raw materials for these neurotransmitters are amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients."
If the brain receives the wrong array of nutrients, an abnormal array of neurotransmitters can result. For example, vitamin B6 is a major cofactor in the synthesis of serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. So it's common to find a serotonin deficiency in people who don't get adequate vitamin B6 in their diets.
When coupled with lifestyle changes that promote neurotransmitter production, nutrient therapy may be all you need to beat the blues. If your sadness becomes serious enough to dramatically affect your lifestyle, it's time to seek professional help. Otherwise, try these natural ways to beat the blues:
1 Enjoy soy. It’s rich in L-tryptophan and L-tyrosine, amino acids that the body uses to produce neurotransmitters. L-tryptophan is necessary for serotonin, which is associated with feelings of well-being; L-tyrosine is converted into dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior. Eat soy in its whole-food or fermented forms—edamame, tofu, or tempeh—rather than soymilk or soy protein powder. Turkey, cheese, chicken, fish, and beans are other sources of tryptophan. You’ll find tyrosine in almonds, avocados, bananas, cheese, and pumpkin seeds.
2 Sample St. John’s wort. This flowering herb has long been used to treat mood and depression. In one meta-analysis, it was found to be as effective as antidepressant drugs, with fewer side effects. And in a large study of 1,778 patients, 77 percent of those who took St. John’s wort supplements experienced significant improvement in their symptoms after 12 weeks. Take 900 mg per day of a product that’s been standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin content, says herbalist Roy Upton, RH.
3 Beware restaurants. Many Chinese (and other) restaurants use seasonings and sauces that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), an excitotoxin that can decrease the efficiency of neurotransmitters and lead to anxiety and depression. When you’re eating out, tell your server that you’re sensitive to MSG; or order foods that are steamed or grilled, with sauces on the side. And skip the diet soda; most of them are sweetened with aspartame, which also acts as an excitotoxin. Choose green tea or sparkling water instead.
4 Check for allergies. Food allergies or sensitivities may exacerbate—or even cause—mood swings, depression, or anxiety, says Joel C. Robertson, an expert in pharmacology and author of Natural Prozac. Wheat is a common culprit, he says, so try eliminating it from your diet for a few weeks and see if symptoms improve. Or consult a health care professional who can help you pinpoint hidden food allergies. Most naturopaths and osteopaths can lead you in the right direction.
5 Stop snacking. Cookies, candy, and other sugary treats lead to blood sugar fluctuations that can cause mood swings, fatigue, and symptoms of depression. Over time, chronic sugar intake also depletes B vitamins, further hampering neurotransmitter production. Stick to non-sugary snacks—nuts, seeds, carrot sticks, popcorn, or hummus—and eat sugar only in limited quantities after a balanced meal. Protein, fiber, and fat slow its absorption, making it less likely to cause blood sugar swings.
6 Hop on the wagon. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that hampers neurotransmitter function, and heavy drinking is associated with increased risk of depression. More than two drinks per day can also disrupt the REM stage of sleep, which is necessary for serotonin production. If you’re prone to depression, skip the strong stuff and order sparkling water with juice; or limit your drinking to social occasions, and use alcohol only in moderation.
7 Retreat. In one study, heart patients who participated in a four-day spiritual retreat had immediate improvement in their levels of depression. The non-denominational retreat included meditation, guided imagery, drumming, journal writing, and outdoor activities. Studies on teenagers, college students, and other groups have found similar benefits of spirituality and prayer. Construct your own retreat: a weekend alone in the mountains, a day of quiet meditation with a spiritual group—whatever works for you.
8 Nosh on Brazil nuts. They’re one of the best natural sources of selenium, a trace mineral and powerful antioxidant. Multiple studies have linked low selenium intake with depressed mood, and others have found that selenium improves mood and reduces anxiety. Turkey, cod, and tuna are other good sources.
9 Supplement with SAM-e. S-adenosylmethionine, or SAM-e, is a compound that’s involved in neurotransmitter production and function. It has been used in Europe for nearly 40 years to treat depression. A number of studies suggest that low levels of SAM-e can lead to symptoms of depression. In one large analysis, 10 out of 14 studies found SAM-e to have significant results in treating mild to moderate depression. A dose of 800 mg twice daily is generally found to be effective, but check with a qualified natural health care provider for more specific dosage instructions.
10 Move to your own groove. Exercise has long been known to boost mood, and moving at your own pace may be even more effective. In one study, women who exercised to their own preferred intensity had better results (and exercised more) than women who were given a prescribed regimen. Other studies show that exercising five times per week at a moderate-to-high intensity is most effective. Try tennis, swimming, or dancing for the most uplifting results.
11 Pile on paella. Saffron—the spice used in paella—is a traditional treatment for improving mood and lifting spirits, and modern research backs those claims. In one study, 30 mg per day of saffron extract was as effective as Prozac. You probably won’t get therapeutic doses from your daily diet, but it’s still delicious in paella, seafood dishes, and creamy soups.
12 Zone in on zinc. It’s necessary for producing GABA, a compound that fights anxiety and irritability associated with depression. A number of studies have also found that low levels of zinc are common in people with depression, especially those who don’t respond to anti—depressant drugs. Other research suggests that oral zinc can boost the effectiveness of antidepressants. The best food sources include oysters, crab, turkey, lentils, and pumpkin seeds. Or take a supplement; Women need 25—50 mg per day. Men may need as much as 100 mg per day.
13 Bake with buckwheat. Not only is buckwheat naturally gluten-free, it’s also rich in magnesium, a mineral that’s necessary for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Studies have shown that people with symptoms of depression often have lower magnesium levels, and upping your intake of this important mineral may quickly improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Use buckwheat flour in pancakes, muffins, and breads. Spinach, pumpkin seeds, and halibut are other good sources of magnesium. Or try supplements: People who took 150—300 mg at each meal and bedtime showed rapid recovery from depression symptoms.
14 Boost your Bs. B vitamins—especially folate, B6, and B12—are critical for brain health and necessary for converting amino acids into neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 and folate may also play a role in forming SAM-e. Folate is so important that a severe deficiency may cause anxiety and even schizophrenic behavior. Turkey, tuna, milk, and eggs are good sources of all three; or take a high-quality supplement to make sure you’re getting enough.
15 Turn on the lights. Light therapy, used for many years to treat seasonal-affective disorder (SAD) is also a powerful treatment for other forms of depression, including chronic, postpartum, and premenstrual depression, as well as bipolar disorder. Invest in a light box—you can find details on how to choose one at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.cet.org). Better yet, get outside: Natural sunlight is the most effective form.
16 Say ommmm. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing reduce stress, a common risk factor in depression and mood swings, says Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic. Stress also depresses immunity and increases inflammation, which are linked to symptoms of depression. If you’re constantly tense, try some self-help stress relievers: Find a meditation group in your area, take a yoga class, or practice slow, deep breathing when you’re stuck in traffic. And learn to say no; cutting back on unnecessary commitments goes a long way to lessening stress.
17 Feast on fish. Omega-3 fats are by far the best studied and safest treatment for mood disorders and depression. They help improve oxygenation of the blood, which stimulates the production of neurotransmitters. They also keep nerve cell membranes flexible to ensure efficient transmission of signals. Some studies suggest that the production of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine is slowed in cases of inadequate omega-3 intake.
Lemon balm might not be the first herb that pops into your mind for lifting mood, but maybe it should be. This naturally calming herb has been long used to treat melancholy and depression. In addition, lemon balm also helps enhance alertness, sharpen focus, and strengthen memory. It might also put you in a good mood to learn that lemon balm is naturally rich in antioxidants, helps treat and prevent cold sores, and supports immunity.
Good Mood Solutions
DOCTOR'S BEST DOUBLE-STRENGTH SAMe contains 400 mg of the nutrient per enteric-coated tablet. The tablets come sealed in blister packs for optimal freshness and convenience.
HERB PHARM GOOD MOOD TONIC COMPOUND blends St. John's wort with other mood-boosting herbs, including ashwagandha, skullcap, and prickly ash bark. Simply add drops to water.
MEGAFOOD DAILYFOODS BALANCED B COMPLEX is made from 100% whole food, including organic brown rice, broccoli, and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a type of yeast. You get an ideal ratio of B vitamins and cofactors.
NEW CHAPTER LEMON BALM FORCE is a new product with 3,500 mg of lemon balm in one easy-to-swallow softgel. Take with food for optimal effectiveness. To learn more about lemon balm, see box above.
SOLGAR WILD ALASKAN FULL SPECTRUM OMEGA softgels feature pure, Wild Alaskan salmon oil, which is also naturally rich in vitamin D3 and the antioxidant astaxanthin. Softgels are tested for purity and potency.