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Treating Depression Without Drugs: What You Need to Know

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Depression is a national epidemic. Depression affects almost 20 million Americans — 10% of adults, and 30% of adult women. According to the CDC, antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., but research shows they are largely ineffective and potentially dangerous.Using more natural means to support mental health is safer and often just as effective as using medications.

A person’s mental emotional state is determined by a vast range of experiences, interactions and physiologic variables. The expression of a person’s mental health is one of the most complex aspects of our existence. The notion that a pill — be it pharmaceutical or supplement — can fix it is absurd by any standards.

Each and every day we as humans confront seemingly insurmountable challenges that can dramatically affect our mental state. By holding up the perception that the pain or anxiety created by these difficult life challenges can be fixed with a pill diminishes the potential of a person to develop to their fullest. It needs to be understood that throughout history humans have suffered tragedy and adversity and it is often through these challenges that we rise up and achieve greatness.

With that said, I do clearly acknowledge cases of depression that do not serve the growth of an individual. Chemical imbalances in the brain and certain situations can produce such mental anguish for an individual that no positive growth or outcome is possible. This would be a situation where any interventions, be it medical, alternative or anything else are clearly indicated.

A 2009 study showed that the most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications are not nearly as effective as we may have thought. Previous research has alluded to this, pointing out that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors antidepressants (SSRIs) are no more effective than placebo in patients with moderate to severe depression.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was conducted using data from a large, government-funded trial called Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression, which usually goes by the moniker STAR*D.  The data showed that the people most likely to benefit from SSRI use are those individuals only dealing with one diagnosed mental health disorder. People who had other mental health diagnoses, such as multiple-personality disorder, bi-polar or substance abuse were much less likely to benefit from the drug. This is interesting data considering that almost 50% of all people diagnosed with depression also have an additional mental health diagnosis that would fit the criteria for not responding well to an SSRI.

We also need to consider the other problems that have arisen from SSRIs. These drugs are commonly prescribed to children despite the fact they can cause increased suicidal ideation. This was such as serious problem, that the FDA put a black box warning (the most severe warning) on SSRIs for their ability to increase suicide in children.

In addition, most doctors don’t think twice about giving these medications to pregnant and nursing moms. The ramifications of manipulating an infant’s brain chemistry at such a critical phase of development are completely unknown and it is foolish to think that no negative results are possible.

Using more natural approaches to support mental health provides a much safer and often just as effective alternative to medications.

Exercise has demonstrated antidepressant effects equal to or greater than SSRI medications for moderate depression. Most studies that have shown positive results are done using 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 times a week. In addition, people lose weight, look better and are encouraged to make other beneficial modifications to lifestyle.

Diet can also play a significant role in depression. Eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and good quality lean meats will provide your body with the necessary amino acids, vitamins and minerals needed to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Eating highly processed foods, junk foods, fried foods, trans fats and high sugar foods have all been correlated to higher rates of depression.

Other issues that can significantly contribute to depression are hypothyroidism (as well as sub-clinical hypothyroidism) and vitamin D deficiency. Your doctor can assess both of these conditions with a few simple blood tests.

There are some supplements which can be helpful for depression. Here are some to consider:

1. Vitamin D

Supplemental vitamin D has been shown to improve mood in people who aren’t getting enough in their diets or from sunshine. While sunlight can help, you may need more than the sun can provide. The best way to determine how much extra vitamin D you may need is to get your blood level of 25(OH)D checked. It should be above 35 ng/mL (87 nM/L).  Recent research suggests that most adults can benefit from daily supplementation of 1,000-2,000 IU per day.

2. Omega-3s

These fats are incredibly important to having a balanced mood. Most research shows that taking anywhere from 1,000 – 5,000 mg daily of an omega-3 fatty acid oil derived from fish can significantly improve depression, attention deficit disorder, anxiety and other mood related disorders

3. A Multivitamin

Many nutrients are involved in neurotransmitter production. They include most of the B vitamins, especially folic acid, B6 and B12. Cover your bases with a good multivitamin supplement.

4. Tryptophan/ 5-HTP

Tryptophan is the amino acid the body uses to make serotonin. 5-HTP stands for five hydroxy tryptophan, which is one step closer to serotonin in the manufacturing chain (tryptophan => 5-HTP => serotonin). By supplementing with either, you increase the building blocks available for the production of this vital neurotransmitter. People already taking a prescription medication for depression should not take tryptophan or 5-HTP unless under the direct supervision of an experienced doctor.

5. Tyrosine

This is another vital amino acid that is used by the body to make three very important neurotransmitters called dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. People who have a depression characterized by lethargy and lack of motivation often benefit from this amino acid because the neurotransmitters it makes tend to be stimulatory on the brain. Tyrosine is also a very important building block for thyroid hormone which also helps to support energy levels and metabolism.

6. SAMe

SAMe (pronounced Sammy) is a naturally occurring substance found in every cell. It is comprised of amino acids and has a crucial role in the body of methylating substances. Methylation is often a critical step in completing the formation of many of the body’s biologically active substances. For depression, this pertains specifically to the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Methlyation is a crucial part of neurotransmitter production. Low levels of SAMe are correlated with higher rates of depression and a wide body of medical research suggests that SAMe can be an effective tool in treating depression.

Typical doses range from 400 mg to 1,200 mg per day. Like tryptophan, only use SAMe under the care of qualified doctor if you are already taking a prescription medication for your depression.


Dr. Passero completed four years of post-graduate medical education at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon after receiving a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Biology from the University of Colorado. Dr. Passero has trained with some of the nation’s leading doctors in the field of natural medicine. In his practice, Dr. Passero focuses on restoring harmony to both the body and mind using advanced protocols that incorporate herbal therapy, homeopathy, vitamin therapy and nutritional programs. Through education and guidance patients are able to unlock the natural healing power contained within each one of us. For more information, visit his website, Green Healing Wellness, or follow him on Facebook.


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6 responses to “Treating Depression Without Drugs: What You Need to Know”

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