In the past few decades, the use of prescription antidepressants has gone up an alarming 400 percent. Currently, one in ten Americans are taking one of these medications. It’s not known for sure whether the problem is that more people are depressed or that these drugs are being overmarketed by drug companies and overprescribed by doctors, but what is clear is that antidepressant use has gotten out of control.
The most popular antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. This group includes some of the most popular prescription drugs on the planet such as Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, and Paxil. The rationale for their use is based on the serotonin theory of depression — that depression is caused by low serotonin levels.
Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter that’s a major factor in the quality of overall happiness and mood as well as libido, sleep, memory, and learning. SSRIs are called “selective” since they work only on the serotonin system. They are believed to improve mood by blocking brain receptors that reabsorb serotonin, leaving more serotonin available to send messages between brain cells.
The Downside Of SSRIs
SSRIs can successfully alleviate symptoms of depression in around 60 percent of those who take them. For those who are seriously depressed or even suicidal, they can be a lifesaver. But this means they don’t work for the remaining 40 percent of users. It can take several weeks for an antidepressant to kick in and trial and error must be used to find the right antidepressant.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common SSRI side effects include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, nervousness, agitation, dizziness, drowsiness, insomnia, weight gain or loss, headache, dry mouth, and loss of libido. They increase the risk of suicidal thoughts or behavior especially in children, adolescents, and young adults.
It’s generally believed that these drugs are not addictive, but it seems their addictiveness has been underplayed. Going off an SSRI or even missing a few doses can cause withdrawal-like symptoms called discontinuation syndrome. Expected withdrawal symptoms include nausea, dizziness, lethargy, and flu-like symptoms. One commonly reported side effect which is not included in SSRI literature is brain zaps. A brain zap feels like an electric shock to the brain that sometimes radiates elsewhere in the body. Brain zaps can be accompanied by disorientation, tinnitus, vertigo, and lightheadedness.
A team of researchers found that withdrawing from SSRIs was as hard as trying to quit addictive benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medications and that depression can return with greater intensity upon discontinuation. This study also found that new psychiatric disorders referred to as “post-withdrawal disorders” can appear after SSRI cessation. These can be even worse than the original condition and include anxiety disorders, tardive insomnia, major depression, and bipolar disorder.
And while the serotonin theory of depression has prevailed for over 50 years, it’s now being challenged. There’s evidence that imbalances of other neurotransmitters and even brain inflammation may be the root cause of depression instead.
Natural Alternatives To Antidepressants
For these reasons, millions of people with depression are looking for better ways to treat their condition. Here are some of the most effective natural alternatives to SSRIs that hold their own in scientific studies.
Note that although these are natural, that doesn’t make them completely safe. Some should not be mixed with SSRIs — or with each other. A few of the most popular supplements for depression should be taken with extreme caution since they can have potentially serious side effects that rival those of antidepressant drugs.
SAM-e (s-adenosyl methionine) is a naturally occurring compound found in every cell of the body and the brain. SAM-e supplements, which are synthesized, are readily available over-the-counter in the United States; however, it’s prescription-only in Europe. It’s been the subject of over 40 clinical trials on over 23,000 people and has been shown to work as well for depression as some antidepressant medications. Additionally, while SSRIs generally take six to eight weeks to work, SAM-e alleviates depression faster.
SAM-e can boost the effectiveness of SSRIs, but do not mix them without talking to your doctor. SAM-e should not be taken with drugs that affect serotonin release such as levodopa, Demerol, or Ultram, or the over-the-counter cough remedy Robitussin DM. When SAM-e is taken with any of these drugs, serotonin levels can get too high, which can lead to a rare but potentially fatal condition known as serotonin syndrome.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to both serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin. Tryptophan supplements increase serotonin levels by providing the essential building blocks of serotonin. Tryptophan has been found to be as effective for depression as antidepressant drugs and is also good for treating a wide variety of mental health conditions including anxiety, ADHD, seasonal affective disorder, eating disorders, and memory loss.
Trytophan is found in high-protein foods like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. But oddly, supplemental tryptophan works better than the tryptophan found in food. Paradoxically, protein blocks serotonin synthesis and, surprisingly, both tryptophan and serotonin levels drop after eating a meal containing protein. While the tryptophan in food is completely safe, tryptophan supplements should not be taken along with SSRIs.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) is well known as a treasured culinary spice, but is little known as a natural antidepressant. Saffron works as well for mild to moderate depression as fluoxetine (the generic name for Prozac) by acting on serotonin metabolism. Saffron is believed to work as an antidepressant due to its many healing properties. Saffron not only increases serotonin but also exhibits antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties. When taken along with SSRIs, saffron can reduce their side effects. Besides depression, saffron is also useful for treating premenstrual syndrome, sexual dysfunction, and overeating.
When buying a saffron supplement, it’s critical to find a standardized extract of Crocus sativus from a reputable company. Since saffron is expensive, saffron fraud is common. According to the USP database, over 100 ingredients have been used to fake saffron including marigold flowers, turmeric, and beet fibers. There are other plants that go by the common name saffron including American saffron, Mexican saffron, and meadow saffron (which is poisonous), but these are not true saffron.
Turmeric And Curcumin
The golden spice turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a mainstay of Indian cooking and also a root used as an Ayurvedic remedy. Turmeric has been shown to be a more potent antidepressant than Prozac. It is believed to work by increasing serotonin, while simultaneously reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Unlike antidepressant drugs, turmeric can be used indefinitely and is safe to combine with other natural remedies for depression such as St. John’s wort and SAM-e. You can liberally use turmeric in food, drink turmeric tea, or take turmeric supplements. You can find dosages for turmeric in its various forms in the University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide.
Turmeric contains hundreds of compounds, but the one with the majority of the health benefits is curcumin. Curcumin exhibits natural anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-cancer properties. It’s also a good alternative and adjunct to prescription antidepressants. One study found curcumin supplements to be as effective as Prozac, while patients who took both curcumin and Prozac experienced even greater relief from their depression. Curcumin can even help those with major depressive disorder. Like turmeric, curcumin can be safely combined with both natural and prescription antidepressants.
Acetyl-l-carnitine (ALC or ALCAR) is a synthesized form of the amino acid l-carnitine. ALCAR is an all-around impressive brain booster that works better than l-carnitine, which is unable to cross the blood-brain barrier to get into and act upon the brain. ALCAR is also a natural antidepressant that brings depression relief fast — working even faster than prescription antidepressants. ALCAR also increases acetylcholine, the primary neurotransmitter of memory and learning, to improve mental clarity, focus, and memory.
Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea) is found in cold regions of the world like the Arctic and mountains of central China. It was used in traditional Scandinavian and Chinese medicine to increase physical stamina and reduce fatigue due to stress. It’s particularly useful for depression caused by seasonal affective disorder. Like acetyl-l-carnitine and SAM-e, Arctic root reduces depression symptoms faster than antidepressant medications — often within as little as one week.
Addressing Nutritional Deficiencies
Being low in essential nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, or omega-3 fatty acids can cause depression. Any antidepressant you take will have a hard hill to climb if your basic nutritional needs aren’t being met. Deficiency of both vitamins B12 and D are extremely common. Research shows that 47 percent of vegetarians and 92 percent of vegans are vitamin B12 deficient, as are many seniors. Most North Americans are vitamin D deficient since few of us live where the sun is strong enough to stimulate vitamin D formation in the body much of the year. If you have any doubt where you stand, get your vitamins levels checked. You can have your doctor run these tests or order your own tests online.
Supplements To Use With Caution
You may have noticed that two of the most popular natural antidepressants have not been mentioned yet — 5-HTP and St. John’s wort. Both of these supplements should be used with extreme caution — and I recommend them as a last resort only after you have exhausted all other alternatives.
St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is one of the most popular herbal remedies that compares favorably when tested against numerous antidepressant medications. However, St. John’s wort’s side effects are surprisingly similar to those of antidepressant drugs including anxiety, panic attacks, dizziness, nausea, and spikes in blood pressure. It reacts badly with so many medications that Examine.com, an outstanding source of evidence-based information on supplements, calls it “the prototypical adverse drug-interaction herb.” It should not be taken with SSRIs or herbs including 5-HTP, tryptophan, and SAM-e. It can trigger psychosis or mania in bipolar disorder patients. And lastly, it makes birth control pills less effective.
5-HTP is a popular supplement taken for depression and insomnia. It naturally occurs in the body as tryptophan breaks down into 5-HTP, which then becomes the precursor to both serotonin and melatonin. However, the evidence for taking 5-HTP for depression is weak. A meta analysis of 108 studies concluded that there is insufficient evidence that 5-HTP is effective for depression. 5-HTP should never be taken with antidepressants, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, or mixed with numerous natural remedies including kava, valerian, l-tryptophan, SAM-e, or St. John’s wort, which can lead to serotonin syndrome. And lastly, 5-HTP is not advised for long-term use since, while it increases serotonin, it decreases dopamine levels. Low dopamine is an often overlooked cause of depression that is also linked to addictions of all kinds.
If the antidepressant effects of exercise could be sold in a bottle, it would be a runaway hit. A Duke University study found that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week significantly reduced the symptoms of major depression in both the short and long term. One group took Zoloft, a second group exercised, and a third group did both. A follow-up six months later revealed that only 8 percent of study participants in the exercise group had their depression return, while 38 percent of the drug-only group and 31 percent of the exercise-plus-drug group experienced a relapse.
Light therapy is commonly used to treat seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression commonly known as the “winter blues.” But now there’s evidence that light therapy exhibits an antidepressant effect even in non-seasonal major depression. In a Canadian study, some participants received 30 minutes of exposure to a full-spectrum fluorescent light box every morning. A second group took fluoxetine, while a third group did both. At the end of eight weeks, 44 percent of the patients getting the bright light therapy were no longer depressed, compared to 19 percent of the subjects taking fluoxetine. Combination therapy was best of all, with that group reporting a 59 percent remission rate in their depression.
A Final Word
All of these effective natural ways to treat depression may spark your interest in stopping your antidepressant medication. If you currently take a prescription antidepressant, do not stop taking it before consulting your doctor. Do not haphazardly replace or combine your current medication with natural remedies. Do your homework to be sure that any combination of drugs or natural remedies you take is safe.
This article was brought to you by Deane Alban, a health information researcher, writer, and teacher for over 25 years. For more helpful articles about improving your cognitive and mental health, visit BeBrainFit.com today.
Nascent iodine can be enormously helpful for mood and emotion tolerance too. Also, hemp oil.
I’ve been on Effexor XR for over 20 years. I recently had to start the off brand and I’ve been sick and depressed for months. I eat very clean/healthy food. My blood work is perfect, but I remember how horrible of a merry go round it was on different drugs before getting better with Effexor XR. I don’t want to do that again. Any suggestions would be GREAT!
This is an interesting article and amazing how prolific these drugs are these days. I took a very small dosage of Lexapro for a couple years during the hormonal thing and did find it difficult to wean off. The mind is complex and usually wants a quick fix. It would be interesting to see the demographics of this study and if usage is regional. I imagine a simpler, natural lifestyle in very rural settings may help alleviate drops chemical imbalances?
Nini Dannes Acuna says
Great article! I will talk to my physician about some of these. Thank you for the information.
Nick Taylor says
I’ve had an AMAZING experience with a low 50mg dosage of Zoloft for my depression, anxiety and OCD tendencies. It curbs the negative thoughts and the “rabbit hole” problems I would have. My obsessive behavior is easier to manage with CBT now. I don’t get stuck on thoughts or have rapid mood changes and can laugh so much easier now. I feel normal again after years! I’m highly interested in making an effort to switching to natural treatments that will work nearly as my Zoloft does though, and found this article extremely helpful.