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The Truth About Natural Treatments for Depression
by Deborah Gray
Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

A few days ago someone posted on my depression website that they wanted a natural fix for their depression, because they had heard that antidepressants are “terrible things.” Hearing or reading this type of statement always makes me take a deep sigh. And then I start mentally ranting.

Let me say that first of all, I do understand the desire to treat depression naturally. Natural always seems healthier. “Natural” brings to mind images of a meadow of wild flowers kissed by the sun. “Chemical” brings to mind laboratories or refineries spewing smog into the air. But that’s all image and perception, and often perceptions are not accurate or don’t tell the whole story.

So let’s say that you want to treat your depression naturally. Here’s the one natural treatment for depression that’s been shown to work: exercise. Mild to moderate depression can be alleviated by exercise. Notice that I said “mild to moderate,” not severe. And there’s a problem with this treatment. When you’re depressed, getting your laundry done is an effort. How easy is it to consistently work out? Not very.

What about St. John’s Wort? Again, it should only be used for mild to moderate depression, and it also has not definitively been shown to be more effective than a placebo.

Why are we so determined to treat our depression naturally? I think that for many people the root of the problem is the refusal to think of depression as an illness. If you treat it with a prescription medicine, it’s hard to think of it otherwise. But if you treat it with vitamins or herbs, you can tell yourself that depression is just a nutritional imbalance, or the kind of cranky mood we might inhale lavender essential oil to combat.

It’s essential to take all “natural” depression “cures” with a grain of salt. At best, you could waste your time and money. At worst, they could be hazardous to your health. About twenty years ago, before I knew that what I had was depression, I started on a natural treatment for what I thought was very bad PMS, following instructions that I found in a library book. It involved taking large quantities of L-tryptophan, a natural supplement. I did talk to my family doctor about it before starting. His main concern was that I have regular liver function tests to make sure my liver could handle those amounts.

After I had been on this regimen about a year, with some relief from my symptoms, L-tryptophan was implicated in several cases of a rare blood disease. I immediately stopped taking it. Fortunately, about two years later my depression was finally diagnosed and treated successfully with antidepressants.

Here’s one of the big problems with natural therapies and dietary supplements: they are not regulated by the FDA. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the FDA isn’t perfect. The agency can be slow to react and can favor the drug companies. But it is better than nothing, and with natural treatments that’s what you have – nothing. No quality control, no testing, no regulation at all.

Also, if there is a natural depression cure out there, chances are pretty poor that it is going to be dispensed online or in health food stores. Remember, pharmaceutical companies want to find the perfect depression cure too. They would license the rights to any herb or supplement that showed promise, like Pfizer did with Hoodia eight years ago, long before it started showing up in spam advertisements. So if you’re tempted to try one of these cures, remember that a legitimate discovery would have been sold to the drug companies for millions.

Antidepressants definitely aren’t perfect. Side effects can be uncomfortable. My teeth are permanently de-calcified from ten years of dry mouth caused by taking an antidepressant from one of the older families. But I spent those ten years happy and productive, not miserable and withdrawn. I’m not thrilled about what happened to my teeth, but it’s a small price to pay for that decade.

If you are resistant to taking antidepressants because you’d rather find a natural solution, ask yourself how long you want to wait. How much of your life do you want to waste waiting for someone to find a natural treatment for depression?

If you are taking a natural herb or supplement to treat your depression, make sure you have at hand a book like The Pill Book Guide to Natural Medicines, which gives information about possible drug and food interactions. And please make sure that you talk to your doctor to see if you need to do any regular testing.
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