Alternatives for the Blues
How to treat depression without prescription medications: From herbal remedies to biofeedback and more.
By Erin Bell published October 13, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
A low mood can get a good boost just from natural remedies. A healthy diet with antioxidant-rich foods is a start. But you can also try supplements like St. John's wort, a regular routine of meditation and yoga, as well as the Chinese practice of acupuncture. Here's a look at the alternatives:
Dietary changes can alter the brain both chemically and structurally. If you're feeling blue, take a step toward recovery by ensuring that your diet includes the following:
Fish oil contains high levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a deficiency in DHA has been linked to depression. When DHA is plentiful, your mood isn't the only thing that gets a boost—memory and learning are enhanced as well. Not a fish fan? Essential fatty acids are also found in a variety of seeds, nuts, oils, and leafy vegetables.
Antioxidant-rich foods can also serve to bolster mental health. Try to include apricots, broccoli, carrots, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, blueberries, kiwi, and oranges, among others.
Daily multivitamins are the final step in keeping your brain and body properly regulated. When selecting supplements, look for B vitamins, magnesium, folic acid, selenium, and the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan. These brain boosters are important for curbing depression and anxiety due to their effects on the mood-regulating neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
It is important to note that dietary supplements are exactly that—supplements. They do little good when used in lieu of healthy eating and exercise habits.
St. John's wort is perhaps the most well-known herbal remedy for depression. It works by preventing the re-uptake of serotonin and norepinephrine; two brain chemicals that affect mood. A review of research on St. John's wort, published in the Annals of General Psychiatry in 2008, found it to be as helpful as mainstream anti-depressants.
Produced in the seeds of the African legume shrub Griffonia simplicifolia, 5-hydroxytryptophan, or 5-HTP, is sold as a supplement which may help alleviate depressive symptoms. This supplement works by increasing the brain's serotonin production, thereby stabilizing mood as well as eating and sleeping patterns. Like most unconventional remedies, the evidence for 5-HTP's safety and effectiveness is mixed. It is best absorbed when taken in combination with vitamin B6.
Extract of Rhodiola rosea root, or SHR-5, is another alternative to mainstream treatment. It is marketed primarily as an energy and mental performance booster, but may also improve mood by reducing stress levels. SHR-5 is a good alternative to St. John's wort for those taking blood-thinners.
Taking more than one anti-depressant at a time is dangerous; don't start an herbal regimen if you're already medicated.
Regular meditation has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and decrease the amount of stress hormone released by the brain.
There are many different ways to meditate. You can focus for an extended period of time on breathing or mantra repetition, or you can practice "mindfulness," which involves regarding the thoughts and feelings that come to you as though you were an objective observer. By allowing your thoughts to come and go without judging or reacting to them, they will slowly lose their power over you. Not only will this relieve the stress of worrying, it will also give you a sense of control over how you feel. This is important in alleviating the feelings of hopelessness associated with depression.
It may take practice to keep from mentally straying when engaged in meditative exercises, but if you meditate for as little as 10 minutes a day, you will start reaping its benefits.
Physical contact is an important element in human communication and connection; we use it to show affection, seek comfort, and believe it or not, to maintain our mental health. Therapeutic massage is based on the concept that a more relaxed body can mean a more relaxed mind. A meta-analysis conducted in association with the Massage Therapy Foundation in 2008 reported that a single massage therapy session can temporarily reduce heart rate and stress hormone levels, as well as promote the release of endorphins. While research on long-term treatment is lacking, there is evidence that it may lower blood pressure.
Reflexology is a more specific form of touch therapy that focuses solely on pressure points in the hands and feet. Its practitioners believe in the connection of these points to different organs in the body, the stimulation of which promotes toxin release and blood flow.
If you don't have the finances to hire a professional massage therapist, you may be still be able to reap the benefits of touch. Interpersonal contact with family, friends, and partners stimulates the release of oxytocin in the brain. Sometimes referred to as the "trust hormone," oxytocin enhances feelings of love and closeness between individuals.
Depression is not only a mental state—the body will often mirror the distress of the mind in depressed individuals. During a biofeedback session, the treatment-seeker is fitted with electrodes and her physiological activity is monitored. The machine alerts its user when the body shows signs of stress so that conscious efforts can be made to lessen physical tension. Biofeedback may base its feedback on muscle tension, sweat gland emission, skin temperature, respiration, and/or heart rate. Upon being alerted of the body's arousal, the user makes conscious efforts to calm herself, thereby returning the body to a state of relaxation.
As the patient gains experience with biofeedback, she becomes more sensitive to her body's signals, and may gain control over physical reactions that were once subconscious. In treating the physical manifestations of depression, the condition itself can be affected.
Biofeedback may be preferable to other alternative remedies if there is an anxiety component to your depression. A 2008 study by Robert Reiner, Ph.D., of the New York University Medical Center showed reduced anxiety and anger in 24 cognitive behavioral therapy patients who carried portable biofeedback devices for a period of three weeks.
The Chinese practice of acupuncture is intended to unblock the flow of life energy known as qi. Needles are not inserted randomly, but target specific meridians (or qi channels) throughout the body. While some see this as a mystical concept, the hair-thin needles inserted during acupuncture do stimulate important nerves. This stimulation increases the brain's release of norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphins, thereby boosting mood.
Once inserted, acupuncture needles are typically left in for about 20 to 40 minutes. They can be twisted, heated, or used to transmit small amounts of electricity into the skin to enhance nerve reactivity. This process is not usually painful, but will be felt to a greater or lesser extent depending on your sensitivity and the quality of your practitioner. Some insurance plans now cover acupuncture treatments, which can cost up to $100 per session.
Regular physical activity is important for maintaining both mental and physical health. Adopting a yoga regimen may be particularly beneficial for those suffering from depression, as the practice is considered by some to be a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. In mastering yoga postures, greater body awareness and self-efficacy is achieved. Concentration and self-control also improve. These tools translate to greater emotional control, which can help yoga practitioners maintain a stable mood despite negative external factors.
A 2007 review of the research on yoga, conducted by Kimberlee Bonura, of Florida State University, reported that both short- and long-term practice can positively affect mental health. There is evidence that anxiety and depressed mood improve after just one yoga session, with benefits increasing the longer one continues to practice. Finally, yoga can serve to reduce stress hormone levels and relieve physicals pains.