By: Dr. Katie Nuckolls, ND
Although we don’t like to talk about it, depression is a major problem in America. According to statistics, one out every ten of us will suffer from depression at some point in our lives. 16 million people (that’s 6.9% of the population) had at least one major depressive episode in 2012. And each year, the number of people being diagnosed with this disease increases by 20% (1). With numbers like this, it is safe to say that depression is a disease that affects almost all of us in some way, whether that is personally or within our circle of family and friends.
One of the worst things about depression is that the very symptoms of the disease (fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, tendency for isolation) make it difficult for the sufferer to seek help and look for alternative options. Think of this in comparison to something like cancer, where it is very common for the newly diagnosed patient to seek multiple medical opinions and scour the internet for natural cures. There is something about cancer and diseases like it that provoke the “lets fight this thing!” mentality. But unfortunately, by its very nature, depression usually takes the fight completely out of the individual.
The good news in all of this is that there ARE natural and effective treatment alternatives for people suffering from depression. Like every other disease, the key is having a treatment plan that is individualized to each patient. Although it is given one broad name, the truth is that there are many different causes, presentations, and symptoms of depression. Therefore, what works to help one person may be completely ineffective for someone else. But when you take the time to get the entire story, treat the whole person, and work together to implement new life skills, the results can be quite remarkable. Below I have outlined the three most important steps in the natural treatment of this growing disease.
Rule out or treat physical causes:
To have an effective treatment, it is very important to either rule out or treat any possible physical causes that may be contributing to a patient’s depression. There are MANY physical conditions that can cause depression, some of which are acknowledged by traditional medicine, but many of which are not. I would like to talk about a couple of them in more detail:
Nutritional Deficiencies: low levels of many different vitamins and minerals as well as essential fatty acids (omega 3’s) are associated with depression. It is particularly important to check for low vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid in depressed patients. These three vitamins are commonly depleted by stress as well as by the use of oral contraception (birth control pills). Unfortunately, traditional labwork is not the most accurate way to test vitamin levels. This is because these labs only look at the serum level of nutrients, which is the amount of nutrients floating around in your bloodstream at the specific time of the blood draw. A more accurate way to test for nutritional deficiencies is to test the level of nutrients that are actually inside your blood cells. This type of testing shows exactly how much of each vitamin the body has actually absorbed and is able to use.
Additionally, due to a genetic deficiency known as the MTHFR genetic defect, some people are unable to convert the folic acid they ingest into the active and usable form known as L-methylfolate. While this defect can lead to a host of different metabolic problems, it is particularly important in depression. This is because low folic acid prevents the body from producing adequate levels of serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine. Spectracell Laboratories is a lab that can accurately test for nutrient deficiencies and MTHFR genetic defects. The information gleamed from these tests allows doctors to prescribe highly accurate and specific nutritional therapies that can have a profound effect on their patients’ health.
Adrenal Imbalance: both elevated and depressed levels of adrenal hormones, particularly cortisol, can cause symptoms of depression. If cortisol levels are too high, this can inhibit the body’s ability to convert tryptophan in to serotonin. On top of the significant mood changes that serotonin deficiency can cause, serotonin is a direct precursor to melatonin, a hormone that is vitally important to sleep. Excess cortisol also inhibits thyroid hormone production and can lead to hypothyroidism, another condition that can cause symptoms of depression. Low levels of cortisol are also associated with mood changes, depression, and fatigue. The most accurate way to test adrenal hormones is through the saliva. Salivary testing measures the biologically active component of these hormones, and, because it can be done at home, it allows for precise measurement of hormones at different times of the day and/or month.
Hypothyroidism: The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism–fatigue, sadness, brain fog, difficulty thinking, and inability to lose weight–are some of the very same symptoms of depression. For this reason, it is very important for anyone who is experiencing these symptoms to have their thyroid checked before starting any sort of antidepressant medication. It is important that the doctor runs a full thyroid panel (TSH, Free T3, Free T4, and both types of thyroid antibodies) and not just TSH, because many cases of hypothyroidism can be missed otherwise.
There are too many metabolic causes of depression to go into detail about each one, but here is a listing of other important conditions to rule out and/or treat if necessary if you are suffering from depression: hyperthyroidism; pituitary, parathyroid, or sex hormone imbalance; autoimmune disease; fibromyalgia; chronic fatigue syndrome; environmental toxicities, food allergies; chronic infections; medication side-effects; hypoglycemia; PMS; lifestyle choices: lack of exercise, sunshine, and/or sleep; obesity; neurological disorders; and anemia.
There are many natural supplements on the market that can help treat the symptoms of depression. But in my practice, I use primarily use homeopathic remedies to treat mood disorders. Homeopathy is a very safe and gentle system of medicine that can have very profound healing effects when used correctly. Because homeopathy works differently than traditional medications and supplements, it can be challenging at first to explain to patients exactly how the remedies work.
Dana Ullman summarized homeopathy beautifully in his Huffington Post article on the homeopathic treatment of depression. He stated that, “the premise behind homeopathy is that symptoms of illness are not just something “wrong” with the person but are actually efforts of their bodymind to fight infection and/or to adapt to stress. Instead of using large doses of pharmacological agents to inhibit or suppress symptoms, very small and specifically prepared doses of medicinal substances are individually prescribed to a person for their unique ability to cause an overdose in the similar symptoms that the sick person is having. By finding a medicine that matches the symptoms of the sick person, the medicine supports and augments the body’s defenses.” (2) In other words, while conventional medicine treats disease and all the symptoms that disease comes with, homeopathy treats the sick person individually. This may seem like a subtle difference at first, but it is actually quite profound. By treating the person instead of the disease, you can stimulate that person’s body to begin healing itself.
There are many scientific studies validating the effectiveness of homeopathy in the treatment of depression. One recent double-blind, placebo controlled study showed homeopathic treatment to be just as effective as SSRI therapy in the treatment of depression, with a lower risk of side-effects (2). Another double-blind, placebo controlled study published in two prominent medical journals showed homeopathy to have anti-anxiety effects in mice (4). Besides these specific studies, there are more than 150 double-blind, placebo controlled studies showing homeopathy to be beneficial in the treatment of a large variety of acute and chronic medical conditions.
No matter how you treat depression, healing from this disease will never occur in isolation. One of the worst parts about depression is that it lies to you. It tells you that you are alone, that no one understands you, and that you are unfixable. But this is not true. It can be an incredibly difficult and challenging step to ask for help, but if you do I promise that you will find family members, friends, and health professionals who will gladly step in to support you.
I recommend all my patients find and work with a mental health professional that they trust on a long-term basis. Working through the mental, emotional, and spiritual causes of depression, as well as learning techniques to release and change negative thought patterns is incredibly important–often more important than any supplement or homeopathic remedy could ever be. As with any chronic disease, healing from depression is a long term and multifaceted process. In my experience, the people who achieve the most profound and lasting healing are those that combine physical treatments with mental, emotional, and spiritual growth practices.