Whether you are just surviving a nasty break-up, getting used to a new job, trying to manage a household of small tyrants, or just feel down in the dumps for no reason, life can certainly make us all feel depressed at one time or another.
Depression is characterized by greater than two weeks of overwhelming feelings of sadness, lack of energy, anxiety or insomnia, changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities that you once loved, and difficulty with concentrating. Depression has been correlated with chemical imbalances of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in our brains. When it becomes severe it is a fatal condition, and is one of the number one reasons for disability world-wide.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the use of anti-depressants among American adults has sky-rocketed more than 62 percent over the past decade. It seems like nearly every patient that I see is on one of these medications, long-term, with no plan for discontinuance.
Drug commercials would have you believe that these magic pills can correct the chemical imbalances in your brain, giving you your life back. Sounds easy right? You don’t feel good because you don’t have enough serotonin so we should just take a pill that gives us more serotonin and…..poof! We suddenly feel like laughing again.
But wait….what were all those crazy side effects that they listed off so quickly that you could hardly understand them?
I have tried a few of these medications myself after my mother’s suicide and suffered side effects, watched my patients experience strange side effects, and watched my mother kill herself just two weeks after starting a new anti-depressant. Another interesting tidbit is that in several studies, long-term effects of these medications are no better than…..you guessed it….placebo.
Side effects of these medications would be enough to make you feel more depressed. Here are some of my favorites:
Weight gain…(just what you needed when you were trying to get back out there after your divorce)
Anorgasmia. That is a fancy word for not being able to have an orgasm. I don’t know about you, but I think orgasms actually are an important TREATMENT for my mood problems. Why in the hell would anyone want to take that away?
Erectile Dysfunction: I guess we better order an Selective Serotonin Inhibitor with a side of Viagra.
Insomnia, Nausea, Fatigue. Wait….isn’t that what I already feel?
Increased Risk of Suicide. It is a well-documented effect that adolescents and some adults finally get the energy to do what they have been contemplating for a long time.
Something that also really concerns me is that drug companies now are aggressively advertising that if your anti-depressant does not work for you that you can add another medication to augment its effects. Most people do not realize that these medications are actually anti-psychotics. That’s right….medications that were once reserved for those in a psych ward with illnesses as extreme as schizophrenia. What once was the treatment for a psychotic break is our treatment for “resistant depression.”
Don’t misunderstand me, I know that these medications can help millions of people with true depression, but for those of us who have so-called treatment resistant depression or who are too sensitive to tolerate these medications, or who want a more natural approach there ARE alternatives that are safe and proven to work. Your doctor probably doesn’t know what they are because they don’t teach us about it in medical school.
I would like to tell you about my three favorite herbs for treatment of depression.
Saint John’s Wort:
You have probably heard about this lovely little flower, or seen it in health food stores. But you maybe wondering, does that really work? Is that something hippies and Whole Paycheck junkies think makes them feel better?
Thankfully some people decided to study herbs and their effectiveness. Obviously this does not generate billions of dollars but it actually may help a lot of people. When you compare Saint John’s Wort head to head with standard treatments for depression, it not only does better than placebo but in some cases decreases depression better than the prescription drug that it is being tested against. (Vorbak et al. 1994). SJW is not just for hippies. It really works.
What about the side effects? Traditional antidepressants cause side effects in a whopping 30-60% of patients. Saint John’s Wort causes side effects in only 1-3%. (Hypericum Depression Trail Study Group). If we had two prescription drugs with that kind of profile, nobody would ever prescribe the one that gives that many side effects over the other.
My favorite thing about this herb is its scientific name, Hypericum perforatum. Its name comes from the fact that if you hold a leaf up to the light it has little perforated holes. This plant literally LETS THE LIGHT BACK IN. You can literally grow a medication that will let the light back into your life…in your backyard.
Saint John’s Wort does have some important drug interactions, so talk to an Integrative Practitioner to see if it is safe for you to use. Which leads me to my second favorite herb:
Rhodiola rosea is a high-altitude dwelling herb that has been used for centuries by the Vikings to increase physical and mental stamina. I don’t know about you, but conquering my day like a Viking Queen sounds a hell of a lot better than being nauseated and fatigued and having no feeling whatsoever from an SSRI.
Rhodiola is classified as an adaptogen. No one ever told me what the hell an adaptogen was in medical school, but I sure wish I had known during those stressful days. These are special herbs that affect our stress hormones and our stress responses when we are faced with chronic, unrelenting drama of some kind. Sometimes during these periods our bodies actually attack themselves and give us all those wonderful symptoms of headaches, stomach problems, weird rashes, ect. Ever heard of “adrenal fatigue”? I think this is some new-age diagnosis that describes our bodies’ state of chronic exhaustion. I can’t think of a prescription medication that would help that. (other than steroids….which would be a bad idea).
If your depression is peppered with anxiety, my third favorite herb will be your go-to:
I just like how that roles off of my tongue.
Withania Somnifera is another adaptogen that helps with chronic stress, but it more for the “wired and tired” flavor of mood problems. In one study (Chandrasekhar, 2012) it actually decreased cortisol levels. It decreased the hormone that allows stress to wreak havoc on our bodies. I don’t know of a prescription drug that can do this either!
Ashwagandha is also anti-inflammatory, meaning that it calms just about everything in your body from irritable bowel syndrome, to migraine headaches, to auto-immune conditions. Depression itself was found to be an inflammatory disorder.
This herb is slightly sedating and can be taken at night to assist with insomnia. Its exciting to have a depression treatment that treats insomnia, rather than creating the need for a prescription sleep aid, with all of its own side-effects.
With so many different anti-depressants to choose from and commercials that convince us that if only we take them our gray days will be filled with smiles and sunshine, it is hard to see that humans have been suffering with depression and anxiety for as long as we have been humans. In some ways our modern lifestyles and technology isolate us more and make it worse, but the plants that have been helping us life our best lives are just as useful today if not more so than the prescription antidepressants.
If you want to feel better, but you are concerned about the possible side-effects and mind-numbing effects of big Pharma, know that there is another way to enjoy your life just as much.
All herbs have interactions, side-effects (although mild), and particular indications. Come talk to me for more information.
Dr. Erin Fenstermacher is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Fellowship-Trained Integrative Medicine Physician with a practice in Albuquerque New Mexico as well as a Telemedicine practice available in other states.