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It’s so widespread that doctors and researchers have dubbed depression “the common cold of mental illness.” Yet in spite of its frequent manifestations, few good treatments have emerged. “Simply put, most people who are depressed have something wrong with their brain chemistry,” says William Walsh, PhD, a leading brain researcher and president of Walsh Research Institute. “Life experiences can make things worse, but usually the dominant problem is chemistry.”
Now researchers are finding that the right balance of nutrients—combined with lifestyle changes—can alter that chemistry and effectively treat depression, often better than drugs. “The brain is, essentially, a chemical factory that constantly produces neurotransmitters—brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins—that pass messages between nerve cells in the brain,” says Walsh. “The raw materials for these neurotransmitters are amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.”
If the brain receives the wrong array of nutrients, an abnormal array of neurotransmitters can result. For example, vitamin B6 is a major cofactor in the synthesis of serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. So it’s common to find a serotonin deficiency in people who don’t get adequate vitamin B6 in their diets. Here are some other natural ways to help balance your brain chemistry:
1. Take St. John’s wort. In one meta-analysis, this herb was found to be as effective as antidepressant drugs, with fewer side effects. And in a large study of 1,778 patients, 77 percent of those who took St. John’s wort reported significant improvement in their symptoms after 12 weeks. Take 900 mg per day of a product that’s been standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin content.
2. Skip the diet soda. Most are sweetened with aspartame, which acts as an excitotoxin. Try green tea or sparkling water instead.
3. Curb your sweet tooth. Sugary treats lead to blood sugar fluctuations that can cause mood swings, fatigue, and symptoms of depression. Over time, chronic sugar intake also depletes B vitamins, further hampering neurotransmitter production.
4. Hop on the wagon. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that hampers neurotransmitter function, and heavy drinking is associated with increased risk of depression. More than two drinks per day can also disrupt the REM stage of sleep, which is necessary for serotonin production.
5. Nosh on Brazil nuts. They’re one of the best natural sources of selenium, a trace mineral and powerful antioxidant. Multiple studies have linked low selenium intake with depressed mood. Take 200 mcg selenium per day.
6. Supplement with SAM-e. SAM-e (S-adenosylmethionine), a compound that’s involved in neurotransmitter production and function, has been used in Europe for nearly 40 years to treat depression. In one large analysis, 10 out of 14 studies found SAM-e to have significant results in treating mild to moderate depression. Take 800 mg twice daily.
7. Move to your own groove. Exercise has long been known to boost mood, and moving at your own pace may be even more effective. In one study, women who exercised to their own preferred intensity had better results (and exercised more) than women who were given a prescribed regimen. Other studies show that exercising five times per week at a moderate-to-high intensity is most effective.
8. Pile on paella. Saffron—the spice used in paella—is a traditional treatment for improving mood and lifting spirits, and modern research backs those claims. In one study, 30 mg a day of saffron extract was as effective as Prozac. You probably won’t get therapeutic doses from your daily diet, but it’s still delicious in paella, seafood dishes, and creamy soups.
9. Turn on the lights. Light therapy, used for many years to treat seasonal-affective disorder (SAD), is also effective for postpartum, premenstrual depression, as well as bipolar disorder. Invest in a light box—you can find details on how to choose one at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.cet.org). Better yet, get outside: Natural sunlight is the most effective form.
10. Bake with buckwheat. It’s gluten-free and rich in magnesium, a mineral that’s necessary for the synthesis of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. Studies show that people with symptoms of depression have lower magnesium levels, and upping your intake may quickly
improve depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Or take a supplement: In one study, subjects who took 150-300 mg at each meal and bedtime showed rapid recovery from depression symptoms.
11. Boost your Bs. B vitamins—especially B6, B12, and folate—are critical for brain health and necessary for converting amino acids into neurotransmitters. Vitamin B12 and folate may also play a role in forming SAM-e. Folate is so important that a severe deficiency may cause anxiety and even schizophrenic behavior.
12. Say ommmm. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing reduce stress, a common risk factor in depression and mood swings, says Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic. Find a meditation group in your area, take a yoga class, or practice slow, deep breathing when you’re stuck in traffic.
13. Zone in on zinc. It’s necessary for producing GABA, a compound that fights anxiety and irritability associated with depression. A number of studies have also found that low levels of zinc are common in people with depression, especially those who don’t respond to antidepressant drugs. Other research suggests that oral zinc can boost the effectiveness of antidepressants. Women need 25-50 mg per day. Men may need as much as 100 mg per day.
14. Feast on fish. Omega-3 fats are by far the best studied and safest treatment for mood disorders and depression. They help improve oxygenation of the blood, which stimulates the production of neurotransmitters. They also keep nerve cell membranes flexible to ensure efficient transmission of signals. Some studies suggest that the production of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine is slowed in cases of inadequate omega-3 intake.
NATURE’S WAY ST. JOHN’S WORT delivers the clinically researched dose of hypericin extract from this herb to promote a positive mood.
LUMINA HEALTH PRODUCTS CELLFOOD SAM-E LIQUID FORMULA, in a stabilized liquid form, boasts as much as a 95% absorption rate, compared with much lower rates of powdered or tablet forms.
NEW CHAPTER ORGANICS COENZYME B FOOD COMPLEX offers B vitamins sourced from 11 stress-balancing, soothing, and restorative herbs and mushrooms cultured for optimal effectiveness.
These products can be found in The Vitamin Shoppe Stores or on vitaminshoppe.com