Like anxiety, depression affects millions of people worldwide and many sufferers are prescribed antidepressants to alleviate symptoms.
But it may be surprising to learn your body has a complex second brain in the gut and nerve signals sent from the gut to the brain do appear to affect mood.
It’s crucial to eat a healthy, nutritious diet and keep your intestines in good shape because the enteric nervous system (ENS), embedded in the wall of the gut, controls digestion and plays an important role in physical and mental well-being. Identifying food intolerances, and taking a probiotic and other supplements or herbal remedies, may help as a natural solution to counteract depression.
Most scientists agree that neurotransmitters produced in the gut cannot get into the brain, but it’s interesting to note nerve cells in the gut manufacture 80 to 90 percent of the body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter often linked to depression.
Serotonin is a brain chemical that helps regulate mood and behavior, and some antidepressants work to change the balance of serotonin. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, block the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
However, the brain and gut are in constant communication, so signals from the gut can definitely impact moods, decisions and behavior. And meds meant to cause chemical changes in the mind often cause GI issues as a side effect.
That’s not to say depression isn’t a serious mental condition that can become debilitating, ranging from loss of concentration and motivation to interfering with work and relationships and even suicidal thoughts, if left untreated. Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.
But similar to traditional treatments for anxiety, pharmaceuticals serve as a Band-Aid solution and don’t address the underlying problem. Taking an antidepressant means becoming dependent on a daily pill for an indefinite period to feel better.
Ayurveda believes the mind and body are interconnected and that physical health and emotional well-being are closely linked; therefore, diet, lifestyle and emotional factors play a role in preventing disease and maintaining optimal health.
Ayurvedic practitioners also recommend essential oils, herbal remedies and gentle exercise to support the body’s ability to restore balance and promote physical and mental wellness, including fending off depression.
Antidepressants may be the best treatment for severe depression, but they come with side effects. It can’t hurt to examine your diet, including adequate vitamins and minerals, in relation to depression symptoms.
Supplements may provide a natural alternative to medicine:
- St. John’s wort is not approved by the FDA to treat depression in the United States, but it is widely used in Europe. This yellow-flowered plant, commonly used in teas, pills, and extracts, is one of the most studied supplements for depression. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine analyzed 37 studies and found it may be as beneficial as antidepressants for mild depression without the side effects of some medications. The supplement has been used for medical purposes in other parts of the world for thousands of years.
- SAMe, short for S-adenosylmethionine, is thought to be involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters in the brain. This supplement has been shown to be as effective as medication in treating depression, and better than placebo, in several clinical trials. It also has fewer side effects than many antidepressants.
- A quality omega-3 fatty acid may help give your brain and mood a boost. Omega-3s are essential for brain and nervous system health, best obtained from fatty fish high in omega-3s and low in mercury and other contaminants. But sardines and wild salmon aren’t a staple of most people’s diet. Studies on fish oil are inconclusive, but being deficient in this fatty acid at certain times (like during the postpartum period) can cause mood swings and depression. New research has confirmed the positive effects of EPA on mood, even more so than DHA, (look for both in your supplement) as it provides a natural balance to omega-6 arachidonic acid. Several studies also have confirmed that people with higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to report symptoms of depression.
- Folate, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12 have been called the “mighty methylators for mental health” by bestselling author and natural health advocate Mark Hyman. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 27 percent of severely depressed women over the age of 65 were deficient in B-12.
- The spice turmeric, popular in Indian curry dishes, has been used for thousands of years in Chinese and Indian medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It supports the brain due to its ability to activate genes to produce antioxidants, which protect mitochondria, the tiny organelles in cells that generate chemical energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Turmeric is available as a supplement, or just add the spice to food.
- A vitamin D deficiency can mask as depression. Several studies have found a close association between depression and low vitamin D levels. According to a 2009 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, as many as three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient. People underestimate the power of getting outdoors and into the sun. It produces vitamin D and photon energy – both critical to health and well-being. The sun interacts with skin to make vitamin D, a nutrient severely deficient in the winter in northern climates and among the elderly. Sunscreens prohibit the body from making vitamin D, so it’s best to get it in small doses or take a vitamin D supplement.
- Other supplements worth researching include amino acids, magnesium and GABA. Amino acids are the special building blocks of protein, and some are transformed into neurotransmitters. A deficiency can affect how your brain works, causing you to feel sluggish, foggy, unfocused and depressed. Some doctors consider magnesium as the natural antidote for stress; it’s a critical mineral that helps promote relaxation. Up to half of Americans don’t get enough magnesium because stress, caffeine, sugar and alcohol all deplete it. Most of the anti-anxiety medications today (Valium, Xanax, Ativan) act on the GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) pathways to calm and relax the nervous system, so a GABA supplement may support GABA pathways. There is no evidence that GABA supplements help depressive symptoms.
- Many people with depression report sleeping too much, while others experience episodes of insomnia. Melatonin is the primary hormone that governs your body’s sleep-wake cycle, produced at night to synchronize bodily repair and promote a restful night’s sleep. Regular sleep is a powerful antidote for depression, restoring your energy and brain power for the next day.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent disease. The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements or essential oils as treatment for any illness and some supplements can interact with other drugs. As with any supplement, it is best to consult with your primary care physician, Ayurvedic practitioner or naturopathic doctor for medical advice and possible side effects or drug interactions.