Naturopathic Medicine for Depression

Depression is a mental condition characterized by sadness, pessimism, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, fatigue, thoughts of suicide, and similar negative emotions. Almost everyone experiences bouts of mild depression that usually last no more than a few days. When feelings of depression persist for longer periods of time, they indicate a serious mental problem that needs professional attention. Depressive disorders are often categorized depending on the severity and persistence of symptoms. Those that tend to last the longest and be the most severe are called major depressive disorders. Less serious forms of the condition are called dysthymic disorders, or simply dysthymia. By some estimates, up to 16 percent of all Americans will suffer some form of major depression at some point during their lifetime. Conventional treatments for depression include counseling and drug therapy. The condition can also be treated by a number of alternative and complementary therapies, including naturopathic medicine.

How Is Naturopathy Used to Treat Depression?

The treatment selected by a naturopathic practitioner for depression depends on the causes of the condition. Those causes differ from person to person, so treatments may vary also. A common cause of depression is one’s diet: the intake of too much of some foods and too little of others. Although the body requires sugars, starches, and fats, an excess of any one of these foods can produce an imbalance in body chemistry, which may manifest as depression. Some individuals are allergic to certain foods—gluten, for example—that may cause symptoms of depression. A naturopath may ask a patient to keep a log of his or her food intake to see if diet is a possible cause of depression.

A common cause of depression is lack of adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals in one’s diet. Naturopathic treatment in such cases consists of nutritional supplements, especially the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, pyridoxine, folic acid, and B12), vitamin C, iron, zinc, potassium, magnesium, and selenium. These supplements can be taken in pill form or by increasing the amount of certain foods that are rich in them, foods such as whole grains, organic dairy products, nuts, seeds, fruits, and leafy green vegetables. Herbal supplements may also be helpful in relieving the symptoms of depression. Among the most popular herbs a naturopath will suggest for this purpose are chaste tree (Vitex agnus castii), coleus (Coleus forskohlii), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), sage (Salvia officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). Other non-herbal supplements are also known to affect mental and emotional moods and may be helpful in treating the symptoms of depression. Two common examples are the amino acids S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) and 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP).

Naturopaths may also recommend changes in one’s lifestyle that reduce the factors that contribute to depression. For example, one’s family members, neighbors, coworkers, and/or friends may have personalities that cause discomfort in a person, which can lead to depression. Eliminating the symptoms of depression, then, may require changes in one’s relationship with such individuals (not necessarily ending contact with them, but changing the terms under which interactions occur). Physical exercise is also generally regarded as a useful approach to the treatment of depression. Exercise increases the production of endorphins in the body, compounds that have a strong and direct effect on one’s mood.

People who are severely depressed and harbor thoughts of suicide or violence should contact professional psychiatric help immediately, as well as seek the help of family and friends in developing and maintaining a treatment plan.

What Is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine differs from allopathic (conventional) medicine in that it tends to trust the human body’s ability to heal itself. The naturopath’s job is to discover how the body is not functioning properly and then to find natural products and procedures that can be used to strengthen the immune system, fight off disease, restore the balance of biochemicals in the body, and otherwise restore the body to good health. The naturopath, then, tends to focus on the patient’s whole body rather than on a set of symptoms, which is a common allopathic approach. Naturopaths are willing to make use of a wide range of techniques in treating a patient, including nutritional and herbal supplements, dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, exercise, aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage, and relaxation therapy.

What Causes Depression?

Medical researchers currently do not know the cause(s) of depression. In reviewing the onset of depression, practitioners tend to talk about risk factors: those factors in a person’s life that tend to make him or her more likely to become clinically depressed.

Some of the risk factors related to depression include:

  • Heredity: People who have family members with a history of depression are more likely themselves to become depressed.
  • Gender: Women tend to have symptoms of severe depression about twice as often as men. No one really understands why this difference exists. It may be nothing other than the fact that women are more likely to seek help for emotional problems than are men. Or it could be that hormonal levels in the blood are implicated in the condition.
  • Previous episode: Anyone who has already had an episode of clinical depression is more likely to have later episodes than is someone without that experience.
  • Psychosocial factors: People who tend to lose their tempers easily, who have low self-esteem, who are unable to recognize the value of their own life experience, or who have other negative views of themselves or other people seem to be at risk for depression.
  • Age: Depression appears to occur more commonly among younger people than older people. The “prime age” for the condition was once about 40 years, although it now seems to be becoming younger. Young people are often at special risk for episodes of depression, at least partly, perhaps, because of the problems of simply growing up in today’s world.

Additional Resources

Bastyr Center for Natural Health. “Natural Treatments for Depression.”

Natural Medicine Collective. Stress, Anxiety and Depression: The Natural Way of Healing. New York: Dell, 1995.

Strohecker, James, and Nancy Shaw Strohecker, eds. Natural Healing for Depression: Solutions from the World's Great Traditions And Practitioners. Darby, PA: Diane Publishing Company, 1999.

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