Depression is a serious medical condition characterized by low mood, lack of energy, sadness, insomnia, and an inability to enjoy life.
Although anyone may experience one or more of these symptoms upon occasion, true depression (sometimes called clinical depression, or major depression) lasts for weeks or more. Until the introduction of antidepressant medications in the mid-20th century, modern medicine could offer few solutions to reverse the debilitating effects of the disease.
With the realization that depression is a physiological disorder caused by disturbances in brain neurotransmitters, rather than a purely psychological disease, scientists worked to develop medications to correct these imbalances. Modern antidepressant drugs work by boosting brain cells’ access to brain messenger chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine.
Although modern science has only recently learned to address the underlying causes of depression, for centuries folk medicine has offered some mildly effective treatments. Among these are St. John’s Wort, the omega-3 fatty acids, and other herbal and nutritional supplements.
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
This venerable herb has been cultivated in Europe for centuries, where folk healers have used it to dispel melancholia (which we now call clinical depression) since the days of ancient Greece.
In modern Germany, St. John’s wort is routinely prescribed to treat mild to moderate depression among both children and adults. Some studies have concluded that the herb may be as effective in the treatment of mild to moderate depression as modern antidepressant drug therapy with fewer side effects.
One caveat: St. John’s wort interacts with numerous drugs, and should never be taken without a doctor’s approval, especially by someone who is presently taking other medications.
Chemicals in the herb are believed to relieve depression, much like modern antidepressant medications, by blocking the reuptake of serotonin by nerve cells, making more serotonin available to the brain. For this reason, it should never be taken with a prescription antidepressant, as a rare, but potentially dangerous excess of serotonin could result.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Countless well-controlled studies have concluded that omega-3 fatty acids, obtained primarily from fatty cold-water fish and fish oil supplements, are crucial for proper regulation of a number of brain functions, including mood.
The omega-3 fatty acids are a group of three chemicals, EPA, DHA and ALA, which are essential nutrients. They must be obtained through the diet, and the body must have an adequate supply to function properly. EPA and DHA are especially important. The brain is nearly 60 percent fat by weight, much of that fat consisting of omega-3 fatty acids, which serve as structural components of the brain’s cells and tissues. As integral components of nerve cell membranes, they play a crucial role in allowing the efficient passage of messenger chemicals.
Many medical professionals believe that depression is rooted in faulty brain chemical signaling, and that, as a result, an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids promotes optimal functioning. Studies show that supplemental omega-3 fatty acids may help regulate mood and reduce the likelihood of depression, while also improving the effectiveness of antidepressant medications, should they become necessary. Some studies suggest that an intake of at least 2 g of mixed EPA/DHA per day is beneficial.
SAM-e & Folate
S-adenosyl-methionine (SAM-e) is a common chemical present in every cell in the body. Through simple chemical reactions, it is converted in the body into other important chemicals, including the mood-regulating brain chemicals, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Available as a prescription drug in some European countries, SAM-e is sold as a safe, well-tolerated supplement in the U.S.
Studies have shown that levels of SAM-e are abnormally low in the brains of people diagnosed with depression. Clinical trials suggest that oral supplementation with SAM-e reverses this deficit and significantly improves mood. Some trials have concluded that SAM-e may be as effective as older tricyclic antidepressant medications with fewer side effects and a quicker onset of action.
Therapeutic doses may range from 400 mg to 1,600 mg per day. For best results, SAM-e should be taken with B vitamins, including B6, B12, and folic acid. Adequate levels of these vitamins will ensure that SAM-e is not converted to the amino acid, homocysteine, which has been implicated in atherosclerosis, a root cause of cardiovascular disease. Folic acid, also known as folate, is also under investigation as a therapy for mild depression. Folate is often abnormally low among people with depression, and some clinical trials indicate that adding folate to the diet may improve the effectiveness of modern antidepressant drugs.