Are there alternative treatments for depression?

Tim Ferriss
Fitness Specialist

Probiotics (bifidobacteria is one example) have been shown as an effective alternative treatment for depression because of their power to inhibit inflammatory molecules called cytokines, decrease oxidative stress, and correct the overgrowth of unwanted bacteria that prevents optimal nutrient absorption in the intestines.

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Many studies suggest that relaxation techniques (aimed at decreasing physical and mental tensions), although not normally used as an exclusive treatment for depression, may be as effective as antidepressants. Combination treatment (i.e., relaxation training along with antidepressant medication) may be more effective at relieving depression than antidepressants alone. Scientists believe that these relaxation therapies work to reduce depression by distracting the mind from negative thoughts, improving mental focus, promoting a sense of mastery and self-control, and by decreasing sympathetic nervous system activity.

Dietary supplements are sometimes used as a primary treatment for depression. More often, they are helpful as an adjunctive therapy to standard antidepressant medication. Dietary supplements that may be useful in the treatment of depression include:

  • amino acids and their precursors
  • dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
  • folate
  • S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)

Researchers believe that these nutrients may alter the production of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals implicated in mood disorders. While the effectiveness of DHEA and SAMe in the treatment of depression has been scientifically established, further research is warranted for the other dietary supplements mentioned above.

Additional studies on the effects of diet on depression also suggest that elimination of caffeine and sucrose may be associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

The Alexander technique may be helpful in relieving some of the aches and pains caused by depression. This "movement therapy" involves relearning how to move your body in ways that relieve muscle tension, improve poor posture and prevent bad movement habits. Alexander technique is named after F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), the Australian actor who created it. The Alexander technique is not a substitute for the medical treatment of depression along with psychotherapy. Talk to your physician about this.

Yogi Cameron Alborzian
Alternative & Complementary Medicine Specialist

Ayurveda teaches us that when we experience any sort of disorder we're experiencing an imbalance of the elements in our mind and body. And while this may be something that is easy enough to relate to a basic physical imbalance like acne (too much of the fire element) or constipation (too much of the air element), something as emotionally complicated as depression can be harder to relate to a medical system like Ayurveda.

But what is significant about Ayurveda as a system is that it doesn't just teach us how to resolve illnesses; it teaches us how to live in greater balance so as to avoid illness in the first place. With this in mind, if a person were to embrace an Ayurvedic lifestyle in accordance with a simple diet of natural foods and their individual constitution, they will be far less likely to experience the emotional imbalances that define a bout of depression.

While other interventions may be necessary to alleviate symptoms of depression as well, it is still helpful to follow Ayurveda's guidelines for a balanced lifestyle. In time, the symptoms will lessen and no longer be an issue.

Light therapy—originally used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD— is now showing year-round benefits for general depression. It may be effective for major depressive disorder, even if it's not seasonally related. The light boxes studied in research provide 10,000 lux of bright light. You sit in front of the light (it's angled above eye level) for about 20 to 30 minutes each day, in the morning.

Dr. John Preston, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

There are many options when initial treatments for depression fail. 75% of treatment resistant cases are failures only because the following approaches have not been used. First, an important issue. Depression can occur in the context of unipolar disorder or bipolar. These disorders are very different. Treatments that are effective with unipolar depression often do not work with bipolar disorder, and visa versa. In fact any treatments that may reduce depressive symptoms can provoke manic episodes in bipolar disorder (especially bipolar I). Having the correct diagnosis is extremely important and misdiagnoses are a common cause of treatment failure. Here I’ll outline treatment options only for unipolar major depression.

Medical illnesses and certain drugs can cause depression. This must be evaluated. Hypothyroid may account for up to 10% of severe depressions but often is not screened for. The most common drugs that can cause depression are: beta blockers, clonidine, estrogen, steroids, tranquilizers (e.g. Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin), interferon, alcohol.

If the diagnosis is unipolar major depression the following are recommended treatments:

  1. Psychotherapy: in particular these forms of psychotherapy: cognitive therapy, behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy for depression.
  2. Prescription antidepressants. It’s very common that failures occur because of doses being too low and/or treatment does not last long enough. A list of antidepressants are available on my web site (free download):
  3. Over-the-counter antidepressants: SAMe, St. John’s wort, 5-HTP (available OTC but should never be taken except under medical supervision) !
  4. Augmentation: here other drugs are added to antidepressants. Many types of augmentation are available; here are the most common and effective: thyroid hormone, atypical antipsychotics (Seroquel; Abilify), lithium, BuSpar, and 2 antidepressants added together such as Prozac and Wellbutrin.
  5. The medication Clozaril should always be considered if nothing else works.
  6. Exercise: best approach: 2 ten minute periods of exercise a day (aerobic: must huff and puff, but ok to do brisk walking if not very fit).
  7. Make sure sleep is adequate: common reasons for impaired sleep: sleep apnea, excessive caffeine use (more than 2 cups of coffee a day), alcohol can destroy sleep, staying up too late.
  8. Bright light therapy
  9. ECT (shock therapy): for severe treatment-resistant cases and psychotic depressions

There are many proposed alternative depression treatments, although none of them have been clinically proved to be effective and they shouldn't replace traditional medical care. There are dietary supplements, the most popular of which is an herb called St. John's wort. S-adenosylmethionine (known as SAMe) and omega-3 fatty acids are also sometimes used. Non-supplement alternatives include acupuncture, meditation, yoga, and exercise.

Hypnotherapy was shown to be more effective than cognitive-behavioral therapy for reducing depression in a 2007 study. Hypnotherapy uses suggestion and imagery to coax the subconscious mind into managing negative stimuli in a more positive, controlled fashion. New coping skills are imprinted in to the subconscious to ward off depressing thoughts. Hypnotherapy can also dig deep into the subconscious to find the root cause of depression. With this information, the patient is reprogrammed to react in a healthier manner to depressive stimuli. A professional diagnosis of the type of depression should be sought before using hypnotherapy.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.