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Alternatives to Antidepressants

By Elaine Pomfrey

Placebos are as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. That surprising conclusion was drawn from two recent studies. The first, a University of Pennsylvania study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in January 2009, looked at two antidepressants and six clinical trials. The second, a larger study in 2008 from PLoS Medicine, examined the results from 35 trials of four antidepressants.

In both studies, antidepressants performed better than placebos in people with severe depression, but according to a survey included in the University of Pennsylvania study, the majority of patients (71%) seeking help for depression are in the mild or moderate range. The implications of these studies along with the potential side effects of antidepressants – headaches, insomnia, nausea, to name a few – are driving many people to seek alternative solutions.

Many people turn to nutritional supplements to lessen depression with fewer side effects than antidepressants. However, just adding supplements without addressing the underlying cause of depression follows the pharmaceuticalAyurveda-Lotusapproach that physicians promote of popping a pill to relieve the symptoms.

Three complete systems recently introduced by health professionals aim to alleviate depression by addressing the cause. One recommends incorporating elements from our ancestors' lifestyles, the second aspires to fix the "broken brain," and the third increases vitality in the mind, body and emotions using the ancient science of Ayurveda.

Were Cavemen Depressed?

The quest to understand why depression has increased so dramatically in our modern society led Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at University of Kansas, to create The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs. He concluded that our sedentary, isolated, indoor, stress-filled, fast-food lifestyle is the culprit. According to Ilardi, human beings were "designed for a different time - a time when people were physically active, when they were outside in the sun for most of the day."

Ilardi identified six key elements of our ancestor's lifestyles that are natural antidepressants: exercise, exposure to light (the sun or a light box), adequate sleep, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, spending more time with others and distracting yourself with engaging activity to avoid ruminating about your problems. He advocates curing depression without resorting to medication.

U of KansasThe University of Kansas is home to Ilardi's large research study called the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change project where he is testing his theory. In 2009, Ilardi reported that 59% of participants who incorporated the changes outlined above and finished the 14 group sessions in the project achieved complete remission, compared with just 10 percent of a control group that took antidepressants or underwent therapy. After one year of follow-up, the majority of participants were depression free.

Fix your Broken Brain

According the Mark Hyman, M.D., medical consultant and three-time New York Times bestselling author, depression is part of the broken brain epidemic. A "broken brain" is Hyman's catchall phrase for depression, anxiety, memory loss, brain fog, ADD, autism, dementia, and other mental and neurological disorders. He asserts in his book, The UltraMind Solution, that psychological challenges can be addressed by balancing the physiology: "What you do to your body, you do to your brain."

Hyman developed the UltraMind solution after curing his own broken brain. He was suffering from forgetfulness, brain fog, depression, and anxiety. After extensive research into current medical literature, he traced his problem to mercury poisoning from breathing the air polluted with raw coal while living in Beijing and from the silver fillings in his mouth which contained mercury.

Like Ilardi, Hyman feels that medication is over-prescribed. He differs from Ilardi in that he asserts that the cause of depression and its cure is highly individualized. For some people, depression may be caused by a low grade inflammatory condition throughout the body. He quotes multiple research findings to support this theory, among them the fact that both exercise and fish oil, both anti-inflammatory, help reduce depression. For others, Hyman states, mercury poisoning may be the cause of their depression. They could find relief from detoxifying the body.

Hyman created Seven Keys to UltraWellness to heal the broken brain:

  1. Optimize Nutrition
  2. Balance your hormones
  3. Cool off inflammation
  4. Fix your digestion
  5. Enhance detoxification
  6. Boost energy metabolism
  7. Calm your mind

Hyman's detailed six week program incorporates the seven keys, as well as individualized self-care options which are determined by multiple quizzes throughout the book. The program includes diet, supplements, exercise, relaxation, sleep habits, and limiting exposure to chemicals, metals and electromagnetic radiation.

Creating Happiness the Mind-Body Way

Healing BodyNancy Liebler, Ph.D. and Sandra Moss, M.S.P.H., authors of Healing Depression the Mind-Body Way: Creating Happiness with Meditation, Yoga, and Ayurveda, propound that depression is not caused by a "broken brain," but rather it can develop from imbalances in the mind, body, emotions or social self.

Depression is a physical problem that is beyond the reach of pills, it is a mental problem that is beyond the reach of words, and it is a spiritual problem that requires techniques to help us connect with the abstract qualities of life.

The authors present depression and its cure in the light of Ayurveda, a 5000 year old system of medicine. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means the "science of life." Ayurveda sees the mind and body as one. Underlying the mind-body is consciousness, the most fundamental level of existence. Ayurveda's healing therapies include developing consciousness through meditation and repairing the mind-body through diet, herbs and lifestyle recommendations.   

Liebler, a faculty member of Michigan School of Professional Psychology, and Moss, a certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, outline tailor-made programs to alleviate depression. These programs are based on Ayurvedic psycho-physiological body-types. In Ayurveda, one size does not fit all, even when it comes to depression. For example, someone with "depression," does not fit the stereotype of a depressed person. Instead, they try to achieve, but feel thwarted, frustrated and highly irritable and can lie awake in the middle of the night.

The book provides a detailed questionnaire to identify your unique psycho-physiological body-type and individualized guidelines to lessen depression by creating vitality. Liebler recommends meditation, in particular, the Transcendental Meditation technique or TM technique, as a holistic means to reduce stress and make the shift to an overall healthy state where emotions, mind and body are balanced.

At the recent Overcoming Depression in a Recession conference in New York, Liebler explained that the TM technique provides very deep rest to the entire nervous system and thus triggers the innate healing capabilities of the mind and body. Several of the more than 380 research studies on the TM technique indicate its effectiveness in alleviating depression. A recent study conducted at American University and published in the American Journal of Hypertension indicated that the TM technique reduced depression, anxiety and hypertension among college students at risk for hypertension. Another study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health examined people who seemingly have a reason to be depressed - congestive heart failure patients. Those who learned TM reported reduced depression compared to control group. And finally, PTSD sufferers showed a significant reduction in depression after four months of meditating compared to non-meditating control group who were in therapy.

Fortunately, options for healing abound for those suffering from depression. All three treatments outlined above advocate shifts in diet and lifestyle. They also support their recommendations with scientific research. Dr. Ilardi's approach is more general, while Dr. Hyman and Dr. Liebler tailor the treatments to the individual. All three methods focus on healing the body to heal the mind, but Dr. Liebler recommends also developing consciousness, the most fundamental level of existence, to restore health to the mind, body and emotions.

Additional Resources

The Transcendental Meditation technique is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider regarding any medical condition. Individual results may vary.

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