Many people turn to alternative or complementary therapy for their depression because they don’t want to take medication or are uncomfortable going for counseling. These therapies are not always effective, and some are riskier than others. Although most mind-body treatments such as massage, yoga, and meditation are safe, you should always consult your doctor before commencing any kind of alternative treatment—even fish oil.
Regular physical activity might not be the first thing your doctor prescribes when diagnosing you with depression, but research suggests maybe it should be. A Duke University study showed that 30 minutes of properly performed moderate aerobic exercise three days a week was as effective as antidepressants in treating symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
For people who refuse to seek professional medical treatment for their depression, relaxation techniques may be better than nothing. According to a Cochrane Review of 15 clinical trials, relaxation techniques (such as progressive muscle relaxation, relaxation imagery, and autogenic training) are not as effective as psychological therapies like cognitive-behavior therapy, but they are better than no treatment for people with depression.
Meditation is a form of relaxation through which people try to clear their heads by focusing on their breathing or a word, otherwise known as a mantra. Some studies suggest that daily meditation practices can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and some symptoms of depression.
Yoga is a mind-body exercise that moves people through a series of poses that help improve balance, flexibility, strength, and focus. They are thought to help align the spine, improve mental clarity, and rejuvenate the nervous system. They may help reduce stress and promote relaxation as well as emotional wellness. A few small studies have shown that yoga may have potential as a treatment for anxiety and depression, but larger and deeper studies still need to be done.
Guided imagery uses the power of positive thinking to help people attain something specific. It is a form of meditation in which people envision their goal (in this case, to become happier) in as much detail as they can. Through this kind of detailed imagery, they may have an easier time achieving that goal. A few small studies have shown that guided imagery could be an effective treatment for patients with depressive disorders, but larger studies still need to be done.
Music therapy has been used to help improve the moods of people with depression. Sometimes it involves listening to music that induces relaxation and a positive mood. Other times, it involves singing as a form of therapy.
St. John’s Wort
In Europe, St. John’s wort is a popular herbal treatment for depression. U.S. physicians are more divided about its usefulness. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), St. John’s wort does not appear to be effective in treating major depression though it may benefit people with mild to moderate forms. It may have serious interactions with other medications, herbs, and supplements, so always consult your doctor before taking it.
S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM-e) is a substance that occurs naturally in the body. In a 2002 study, NCAAM found that SAM-e may be more effective than a placebo but less effective when tested against standard forms of depression treatment. However, more studies need to be done. Because it may cause mood swings and mania, people with bipolar disorder or manic depression should not take SAM-e. Other side effects may include nausea, headache, anxiety, and diarrhea. Consult your physician before taking S-adenosyl-L-methionine.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) works by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a chemical associated with mood, sleep, appetite, and other functions. Although some studies suggest it may be effective in treating depression, taking 5-HTP at high doses or for long periods of time could be dangerous. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate dietary supplements, so they are not tested for purity. Because of this, contaminants have caused some 5-HTP users to develop a sometimes-fatal blood condition called eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS). More studies need to be done in order to determine the efficacy of 5-HTP. Consult your physician before taking 5-HTP.
Kava is a root from the kava plant used to make a drink known for its sedative and anesthetic properties.
It is most commonly seen as an ingredient in relaxing teas, but areas of the South Pacific, including Hawai’i, have used kava for stress release, mood elevation, and other calming effects. It has been likened to benzodiazepines for its relaxing effects.
Studies have shown kava is effective in treating tension and anxiety, which may help ease depression symptoms. However, as there are limited amount of research into kava, so long-term effects and side effects are unknown.