"The physician is nature's assistant." Galen, 2nd century AD
Depression has come more and more to the forefront in health care in recent years. A great percentage of ailments that individuals present to their doctors today seem to have some form of mental/emotional complication which can be perceived as depression. The millions of individuals suffering clinical or symptomatic depression can experience great benefit from some specific attention to their own health as well as guidance from a health professional who understands the basic tenets of natural medicine.
Natural medicine, including herbs, diet, and other non-invasive therapies, is particularly appropriate in treating the underlying causes and symptoms associated with depression. Unlike conventional, allopathic medicine, natural medicine works in a gradual manner, is humanly comprehensible and may even be considered to be ordinary-- like ordinary magic. Natural medicine is consistent with the rhythms of nature and how nature is organized. Historically, there has been a commitment in medicine to do no harm, and when you are using natural substances such as herbs and working at a gradual pace, the likelihood of doing harm is almost completely eliminated.
Underlying Causes and Symptoms of Depression: A Mirror Image
A fundamental principle of natural medicine is that physiology and psychology are intimately related. In examining the medical literature it is fascinating to note that the symptoms and causes of depression can often be interchanged. For example, some of the symptoms associated with depression include chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, excessive sleep, loss of appetite, excessive appetite, headaches, backaches, joint aches, bowel disorders, as well as feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. On the other hand, the causes of depression read like a mirror image: tension, stress, chronic headaches, chronic stomach aches, bowel problems, chronic nutritional deficiencies, chronic allergies, chronic physical disorder, poor diet, excessive sugar and caffeine intake, endocrine disorder such as hypothyroidism, endometriosis, lack of sun exposure, and assaults from the environment such as toxic metals.
In effectively dealing with the underlying causes and symptoms of depression, I have found that it is important to discover the individual's weakest physical link. The weakness may be a nutritional problem, undiagnosed hypothyroidism, chronic yeast or viral infection, intestinal parasites, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or something as basic as dehydration (often seen in professional athletes) or lack of potassium. I try to determine these potential problems before prescribing dietary changes, exercise, nutritional supplements, homeopathy and/or specific herbs or herbal combinations for treating depression or its associated symptoms. The following are some examples of common causes I have observed to be underlying my patients' depression.
Hypothyroidism, for example, often has numerous associated mental symptoms. Patients suffering from hypothyroidism very often feel like they cannot cope, life is simply too much, and find themselves withdrawing from the world. Typically, patients experience a tremendous mental shift after appropriate treatment for hypothyroidism.
To test yourself at home for an underactive thyroid, keep a thermometer by your bed at night. In the morning, when you wake, immediately place the thermometer under your arm and hold it there for fifteen minutes. This may seem like an eternity but it is important to be still. Any motion may give a false reading. Do this for five consecutive days. If the reading is consistently 97.6 degrees Fahrenheit or lower you may have an underactive thyroid and you should consult with your physician.
There are certain nutrients, which are used to enhance thyroid activity. Kelp, seaweed, which contains iodine, is often useful in supplementing thyroid function. L-tyrosine, an amino acid, is also effective in stimulating proper thyroid function and fighting depression associated with depressed thyroid function. A naturally oriented health care practitioner may also prescribe a thyroid glandular. The B vitamins are also very important to improve energy and assure proper glandular function.
Adaptogenic herbs, specifically Eleutherococcus senticosus, better known as Siberian ginseng may also be considered in cases of hypothyroidism. This herb helps to regulate the entire endocrine system, including the thyroid and adrenal function.
As for dietary considerations, sufficient protein is necessary for hypothyroidism. Raw cruciferous vegetables, such as: broccoli, cabbage, kale may suppress thyroid function. These vegetables in their cooked state are not problematic but should only be used in small amounts in their raw state.
Our diet also has a tremendous impact on our moods. Since the dawn of civilization people have used food to alter their mood. Alcohol, sugar and stimulants such as coffee have been utilized for this purpose. Until recently scientists were not convinced of the effect of food upon mood, but in the last ten years they have finally acknowledged that food can affect how you feel, think and act. I find that poor dietary habits are not the exception but the rule among my depressed patients. Most people suffering from depression usually have marginal nutritional deficiencies associated with changes in mood and even altered brain waves, including deficiencies in B vitamins, selenium, potassium and amino acids. Memory loss, confusion, depression, irritability, and anxiety have all been linked to dietary indiscretion.
Potassium deficiency, in particular, is another common cause of depression. Women who are particularly low in potassium can have acute episodes of depression accompanied by fits of crying with no seeming cause. One woman who came into see me began crying within sixty seconds although we were not discussing anything particularly emotional. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, "I don't know. All of a sudden I just start crying." I gave her an old naturopathic remedy, apple cider vinegar, honey and water, and within a few sips, she started calming down and feeling better. She took that simple formula with her meals for a month or so and the crying stopped.
L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid is the precursor to one of the most important neurotransmitters, serotonin. Tryptophan helps to raise the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is needed to regulate sleep, secrete pituitary hormones, and perceive pain. Serotonin is most often abnormally low in depressed people. Tryptophan is found abundantly in milk and turkey. After a carbohydrate rich meal, insulin causes competing amino acids such as tyrosine, phenylalanine, and leucine, to leave the blood and enter muscle tissue. With fewer amino acids vying for entry, more tryptophan enters the brain and is converted into serotonin. Increased serotonin levels results in increased relaxation and drowsiness. You can try this out on yourself. Try eating a meal high in carbohydrates, pasta with a fruit dessert and see how you feel compared with a high protein lunch, fish with vegetable.
Eating higher protein meals will increase the amount of the amino acid tyrosine in the blood. Through research it has been demonstrated that for tyrosine to be effective therapeutically, it is best taken in supplement form with a small amount of carbohydrate. The carbohydrate stimulates insulin secretion, which reduces the levels of other competing amino acids, and allows easy entry of tyrosine into the brain. An increase in brain tyrosine will ultimately increase the levels of catecholamines, particularly dopamine. Clinically, tyrosine is effective in treating depression associated with fatigue due to low normal thyroid and or adrenal function.
Another common example involves intestinal parasites. Feelings of gloom and doom are often associated with a serious infestation of intestinal parasites. Patients suffering from parasites often feel that their world is coming to an end. I once treated a couple who had contracted an unusual disease while traveling in Africa. They were diagnosed at UCLA Medical Center with Ross River Disease. The man was also diagnosed with an unusual intestinal parasite. Both of them were survivalists who were extremely paranoid and felt like the world was coming to an end. They periodically traveled to the wilderness with their guns and camouflage gear. After treatment with an herbal milk thistle extract combination and two nutritional supplements, lipoic acid and pine bark extract, their physiology improved and the digestive symptoms associated with the parasitic infection cleared up they had an extreme shift in the mental outlook. Soon they began to store their guns in the basement, made fewer trips to the wilderness, and the woman decided to burn the camouflage gear.
Candidiasis, a chronic yeast infection of candida albicans, also has associated mental symptoms including feelings of disorientation, confusion and being out of control. On the physical level one may experience joint and muscle ache and pain, as well as bodily pain that is not associated with any apparent cause. Several years ago a professional wrestler came to see me suffering from apparent arthritis and depression. He had been around the medical block, seeing orthopedic surgeons, internists, and endocrinologists. Finally, he came to my office bringing in stacks of blood work. I examined him and gave him an extensive questionnaire. Nearly two-thirds of his answers pointed to candidiasis and one of his primary symptoms was depression. We began treating him with pau d'arco, bifidus, a two thousand year old Chinese herbal formula for joint pain and a series of homeopathics. Within ten weeks all of his pain disappeared and his depression lifted simultaneously.
Herbal Medicine: A Natural Approach
Herbal medicine has a long and respected history, and holds a valuable place in the treatment of mental/emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression as well as the vast majority of health problems. Utilizing the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to both prevent and treat illness, herbal medicine not only helps to alleviate symptoms but also helps treat the underlying problem, as well as strengthen the overall functioning of a particular organ or body system.
Throughout history, herbs have been used for medicinal purposes in traditional cultures worldwide. Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas all have a rich history of herbal healing. In China, authoritative texts on herbal medicine compiled over four thousand years ago are still in use today. Texts from the ancient cultures of India, Egypt, and Mesopotamia describe and illustrate the use of many medicinal plants. Ancient Ayurvedic medical treatises discuss herbs such as turmeric, gotu kola, neem, ashwaganda, and ginger, which are being researched today for their therapeutic properties. Traditional cultures in Europe prior to the Roman conquest also relied on herbs for medicine. In Europe, homegrown botanicals were the only medicines readily available from early Christian times through the Middle Ages.
The Rise of Modern Medicine and the Decline of Herbalism
As in Europe, the early American colonists relied upon herbs for medicine and this reliance continued until the early twentieth century. The first U.S. Pharmacopeia, published in 1820, included an authoritative listing of herbal drugs, with descriptions of their properties, uses, dosages, and tests of purity. Following periodic revisions, the U.S. Pharmacopeia became the legal standard for medical compounds in 1906.
In the early twentieth century, however, the science of pharmacology began to focus on capturing the patentable active properties of plants by identifying, isolating, extracting, and synthesizing individual plant components, rather than studying and utilizing the medicinal properties of the whole plant.
Pharmaceutical laboratories began to replace the herbal apothecaries as the providers of drugs protected by patents. The use of herbs in the United States, previously considered mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unconventional, unscientific and fell into relative obscurity. With the progression of modern medicine in the twentieth century, most physicians have come to rely on the Physician's Desk Reference (PDR), an extensive listing of chemically manufactured drugs, as opposed to the U.S. Pharmacopoeia with its reliance on herbal compounds.