Depression is the most commonly experienced mood disorder in adults and children, with a higher rate of incidence among women. While the specific cause of depression largely remains a mystery, it is generally accepted that an imbalance of hormones that affect mood, namely serotonin and dopamine, is responsible. However, there is evidence to indicate that some individuals may be genetically susceptible to depression. In addition, some studies suggest that other factors may play a role, including impaired functioning of the hippocampus, and altered DNA of brain cells due to oxidation stress promoted by vascular disease. Whatever the cause, depression can be treated with a variety of natural antidepressants in many cases.
There are several good reasons to consider treating depression with natural antidepressants rather than conventional medications, especially when it comes to children and adolescents. This is due to the fact that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) typically used in the conventional course of treatment have been found to significantly increase the risk of suicide in this age group. In addition, there is a greater risk of developing a dependency with conventional medications across all age groups.
Researchers have found that the majority of patients with depressive disorders lack sufficient levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the brain. This steroid hormone, which helps to regulate serotonin production and release, also decreases with age. Studies have shown that supplementation with DHEA is an effective natural antidepressant since it improves serotonin utilization.
S-Adenosyl-Methionine, or Sam-e for short, is one of the most popular natural antidepressants. In fact, it’s been widely recommended by physicians in Europe for decades and more recently in the U.S. Normally, the brain manufactures this substance from the synthesis of the amino acid methionine. Yet, for reasons not yet clearly understood, this event doesn’t occur in people with clinical depression. However, research indicates that Sam-e is not suitable for those who suffer from bipolar (manic) depression since it tends to escalate symptoms in these patients.
Several herbs are regarded as natural antidepressants and suitable for treating mild depression, particularly St. John’s Wort. This is due to the presence of hypericin and pseudohypericin, which seem to promote a mild sedative effect. The mechanism behind this activity appears to be related to stimulating 5-HTP reuptake inhibitors at receptor sites, namely L-tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin and melatonin.
Other natural antidepressants work by inhibiting the activity of monomine oxidase, an enzyme that degrades serotonin, epinephrine and dopamine in the absence of sufficient quantities of essential fatty acids. This can be countered by supplementing with omega-3, which is derived from fish oil. Of specific interest to researchers are the omega-3 fatty acids known as docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are needed by the brain in order for healthy neurotransmission to occur.
While these natural antidepressants have been found to improve symptoms of depression in many patients, they should not be taken without the supervision of a health care practitioner and may not be suitable at all for some people. For instance, DHEA may produce androgenic effects and should not be taken by those with a history of uterine or breast cancer. Likewise, Sam-e interferes with chemotherapy drugs, while St. John’s Wort increases the risk of bleeding if taken in conjunction with warfarin (Coumadin). Most importantly, natural antidepressants should never be combined with conventional depression medications.