It’s estimated that 22% of adults 18 and older suffer with depression. This is nearly 50 million Americans (source). Women experience depression at twice the rate of men, no matter their race or social status. According to the CDC, the following groups are most likely to suffer from depression:
- persons 45-64 years of age
- blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
- persons with less than a high school education
- those previously married
- family history
- individuals unable to work or unemployed
- persons without health insurance coverage
I understand depression. It runs in my family, and I’ve struggled with it myself. Medication was never an option for me, and though that is a very personal decision, I believe depression can be resolved naturally in most cases, using the right foods and supplements to restore underlying imbalance, whether in brain chemistry or other body systems.
First, let’s take a look at what depression means. This list of symptoms is from the Mayo Clinic:
- Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
- Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
- Reduced sex drive
- Insomnia or excessive sleeping
- Changes in appetite — depression often causes decreased appetite and weight loss, but in some people it causes increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Agitation or restlessness — for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Indecisiveness, distractibility and decreased concentration
- Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy — even small tasks may seem to require a lot of effort
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself when things aren’t going right
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Crying spells for no apparent reason
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
For some people, depression symptoms are so severe that it’s obvious something isn’t right. Other people feel generally miserable or unhappy without really knowing why. It’s important to note that it’s ok to not feel happy all of the time. Feeling sad or unhappy is a normal part of life. It becomes problematic when these symptoms are long-lasting and ongoing, and you’re unable to bounce back.
What Causes Depression?
Depression is complex and multi-faceted, and like many health conditions, we’re learning more about what causes depression over time. We have probably barely scratched the surface in understanding the brain. What we DO know, however, is depression isn’t simply caused by a serotonin deficiency.
A recent (2022) major study has debunked the low serotonin theory of depression. You can read about that here. We’ve been sold the idea that low serotonin, a major neurotransmitter responsible for mood and happiness, causes depression, Therefore it makes sense to give people SSRI drugs to “cure” the low serotonin. It’s reported that 40-60% of people do find relief using SSRIs, but SSRI drugs may make some people feel worse and stop working over time in some individuals. SSRIs may also deplete serotonin levels. (source)
Main causes of depression include the following:
- Family history
- Nutrient deficiencies, especially B vitamins
- Stressful life events, chronic stress
- Poor blood sugar regulation
- Medication, drugs, alcohol
While it’s been long accepted that neurotransmitter deficiencies were THE cause of depression, we now know that inflammation is a cause of depression, and studies are showing that depression is a sign and result of inflammation in the brain. This is a huge finding, and it tells us that depression is a symptom of an underlying imbalance rather than a disease itself.
Cerebral inflammation kills neurons, and it can lead to many complications. The death of neurons and neurotransmitters may lead to shrinkage as well as reduce a person’s neuroplasticity – the ability of brains to change as the person ages. (source) Since new neurons and neurotransmitters will have a tougher time growing, this leads to cognitive problems in the affected person.
Your brain is always firing. Neurotransmitters are endogenous (internal) chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse, potentiating some kind of action, whether it be inhibitory or excitatory. Serotonin and dopamine are your 2 main neurotransmitters, responsible for regulating mood, sex drive, sleep, cravings, muscle movement and concentration. Dopamine is responsible for the rush and pleasurable high involved in falling in love.
Your body synthesizes neurotransmitters from amino acids broken down from protein (one reason why it’s important to get high quality protein in your diet). When everything is firing properly in the brain, serotonin and dopamine are properly absorbed through neuron bundles, but when these bundles get damaged, the uptake suffers. These neurotransmitters need to transmit these signals to and from neurons, but when the neuron bundles are damaged, the neurotransmitters can’t communicate, and there is a kind of misfire.
This is a symptom of, rather than a main cause of, depression. Neuron bundles can be damaged via head injury, poor diet, too many toxins, or heavy metals. Low neurotransmitters can also be a result of a genetic deficiency. Neurotransmitter imbalances can be a main cause of depression, but theses imbalances are often affected by an upstream root cause, like chronic high cortisol from long term stress.
“One of the most common changes seen in a depressed patient’s brain is shrinkage, especially in the hippocampus, thalamus, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex. How much these brain areas shrink depends on the length and severity of your depression.
A chemical imbalance caused by the hormone cortisol – a.k.a. the stress hormone – is what triggers this shrinkage. Depression causes the hippocampus to raise its cortisol levels, impeding the development of neurons in your brain. The shrinkage of brain circuits is closely connected to the reduction of the affected part’s function.
While other cerebral areas shrink due to high levels of cortisol, the amygdala enlarges. The amygdala controls emotion, so this may cause issues like sleep disturbances, mood swings, and other hormone-related problems. An enlarged amygdala is also linked to the development of bipolar disorder.” (source)
We also know there is a strong connection between the health of the brain and the health of the gut. Inflammation in the gut triggers inflammation in the brain. Focusing on gut health and an anti-inflammatory diet are major points for treatment consideration. Gut infections or autoimmune conditions that originate as a result of such gut infections can trigger depression due to inflammation.
As you can see, depression is a complex issue.
The conventional approach is to take anti-depressants or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Prozac, Celexa, Zoloft, Paxil, etc. These drugs affect serotonin reuptake in the brain, causing it to flood and then linger around longer in the synapses so you feel better. Thing is, over time, your body’s production becomes depleted because the drugs do nothing to replenish low stores, and the drugs stop working, or additional drugs need to be added. Furthermore, if neurotransmitter imbalances aren’t the cause of your depression, these drugs can have serious side effects. So is there a drugless solution? Is it possible to overcome depression with diet and lifestyle changes?
I can’t tell you the number of clients I’ve had who have gone to their doctors, explaining that they don’t feel quite right, or they struggle with severe PMS or low mood, and they are handed a scrip for Prozac or Wellbutrin. They often aren’t tested for hypothyroidism, asked about their sleep, diet, or lifestyle habits. To me, that is irresponsible medicine. In these cases, SSRIs or other drugs may make the person feel worse if brain chemistry isn’t the main cause.
Overcome Depression Naturally: Cut the Toxins
A main cause of neuron bundle damage is a buildup of toxins in the body. It’s no secret we’re living in a toxic environment. We’re exposed to an unprecedented number of toxins from pollution, our “fake” processed food supply, the environment, and personal care products and cleaning products. Women alone are exposed to over 500 different chemicals as a result of their cosmetics. Toxins overwhelm our detox capacity and build up in fat tissue, affecting endocrine function, fertility and cognitive function. Toxins cross the blood-brain barrier and damage neuron bundles in the brain, inhibiting serotonin and dopamine production.
If you need a reason to eat organic, this is a good one: Pesticides and herbicides damage neuron bundles in the brain. Aside from contributing to depression, damaged neuron bundles are a factor in anxiety, addiction, migraines, insomnia, chronic pain, Parkinson’s, and ADD/ADHD. This study released a couple years ago stated that exposure to pesticides increased a child’s risk of developing ADD/ADHA. Children are especially at risk because they are so small.
As I mentioned earlier, when neuron bundles become damaged, they cannot properly communicate, and serotonin/dopamine transfer is adversely affected. Serotonin and dopamine are our feel-good neurotransmitters, and when these neurotransmitters are low, depression (and any or many of the above issues) can result.
The solution? Avoid toxic cleaning and bodycare products (make your own!), and do a liver cleanse twice yearly to keep your detox pathways running efficiently so toxins can be excreted. Adopt my 10 detox habits into your life on a daily basis to lower your toxic load. Increase antioxidants from brightly colored fruits and veggies to combat oxidative damage.
Overcome Depression Naturally: The Brain Diet
I have written about the brain diet before. If you are coming from a more processed “standard american diet,” transitioning to real, whole foods is the first step. Our food supply is filled with neurotoxic chemicals from corn syrup to artificial sugar substitutes. Cutting the sugar and the processed and fake foods is the first step to feeling better. Your weight will normalize and your stable blood sugar means more energy and less irritability. Refined foods have been stripped of their nutrients and are combined with chemical flavors and additives, and these skeletonized foods rob the body of essential nutrients and contribute to inflammation. Give your body the nutrients it needs for repair and cellular health. Here are the foods to focus on for overcoming depression.
- The brain is over 60 percent fat, so give it good fats like omega 3s found in wild salmon and sardines, walnuts, leafy greens, grass fed beef/lamb. You need adequate protein at every meal, because proteins are amino acids that the body uses to synthesize neurotransmitters. Eggs are high in choline, a brain boosting nutrient.
- Coconut oil & butter–the brain and cell membranes need saturated fats. Avoid the inflammatory vegetable oils.
- Focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as the good fats mentioned above and sulfur-rich veggies like the cruciferous family, which help liver detox. Berries and turmeric are excellent choices too.
- Antioxidants (vitamins A, C, E, zinc and selenium) counter free radical damage and inflammation. By focusing on veggies of all kinds, fruit, organic animal protein and shellfish, you’ll get a good spectrum. Shoot for 6 cups minimum of vegetables per day. Really. It’s not hard; just fill up a big bowl of veggies and have them with lunch and dinner.
- Drink green tea. It’s high in antioxidants and calming theanine.
- The B vitamins are necessary for good cognitive function. Consider supplementation and get B-rich foods like liver, fish, eggs, and beef.
- Get fermented foods like raw kraut and water kefir (or dairy kefir if you tolerate it) for gut health.
Overcome Depression Naturally: Supplemental Support & Lifestyle
So, this is the exciting part. There is groundbreaking research about how using high doses of amino acids like tyrosine and 5HTP can actually repair neuron bundles in the brain. We previously thought there was no way to “heal” the brain once the neuron bundles were damaged. But these amino acid therapies can reverse depression without using drugs.
I have witnessed many people transition off drugs and heal and balance their brain using amino acids (together with changing their diets and lifestyle habits). I recommend working with a practitioner to decide exactly which amino acids and supplements you need. It can be overwhelming to go it alone. Here are a few supplements to consider for combatting depression:
- take a vitamin D supplement. We’re very deficient, as a nation, and supplementing with D has been shown to alleviate anxiety and depression.
- omega 3s can really help. I recommend this one.
- probiotic for gut health to help digestion and to ensure you’re absorbing all the nutrients from the foods you’re eating
- B vitamins are excellent for cognition
- 5HTP can help balance serotonin levels, and tyrosine can help low dopamine. This supplement is excellent for boosting both serotonin and dopamine, and I love this one for boosting dopamine.
- low GABA can contribute to anxiety and alcohol cravings. If you supplement, you must take the absorbable, bio-identical form that crosses the blood-brain barrier (like this one).
- Passionflower has been used for anxiety, insomnia and restlessness and boosts production of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter.
- This calming formula is excellent for those deficient in serotonin, dopamine, and GABA, and it also contains brain-nourishing phosphatidylserine and inositol for proper neuron membrane structure support, receptor function, and response to neurotransmitters, hormones, and cell-signaling compounds. It’s great in the evenings to reduce anxiety and foster restful sleep.
You may be surprised that St. John’s Wort is not on this list. The reason is because it gets such mixed reviews: Some studies show benefit; others do not. It may have an idiosyncratic effect, meaning it helps some but not others.
I would recommend working with an alternative practitioner who specializes in balancing brain chemistry so you can get a personalized protocol and further testing to determine any other imbalances or autoimmune conditions that may be factors. See the resources section for my recs.
Because of the strong correlation between gut health and brain health, I recommend stool testing to check for pathogens and parasites that contribute to systemic inflammation (get the GI MAP here, 7th down on the menu). Cleaning up the gut and recolonizing with beneficial probiotics, as well as healing leaky gut, will drastically reduce inflammation throughout the gut, body, and brain.
I’ve written quite a bit about how attention to daily habits, stress relief, and addressing past trauma is critical for healing. Start with just one habit– like a daily walk in a park or in the woods— and build from there.
- Sleep is very important for healing. Many people who struggle with depression get too much sleep, but if you’re not getting 8-9 hours, make an effort to do so. If your depression is accompanied by severe fatigue and you are sleeping too much, have your adrenals tested. High cortisol can burn out serotonin levels and lead to fatigue with depression. Click here for my sleep hygiene tips.
- Avoid alcohol, which is a depressant. It may make you feel better in the short term, but it can worsen depression. Don’t smoke either– the chemicals in cigarettes are neurotoxic.
- Move more! Exercise boosts mood.
- Meditation may help. It strengthens and causes positive changes in the brain.
- Live clean & eat green! Avoid neurotoxic pesticides on your produce. Buy organic meat. Detox your home cleaning products and buy natural bodycare products (or make your own).
- Detox twice yearly
- Keep blood sugar levels stable by eating in regular intervals. Hypoglycemia can contribute to depression and anxiety.
- Test for heavy metals, especially mercury, which can damage neuron bundles.
- Candida overgrowth can also contribute to depression and brain fog.
If you’re looking for an easy do-it-yourself 21 day detox program, click here to download my ebook and get a free resource guide with it. I myself do this cleanse twice yearly, and it’s easy, fun and a great way to support your liver in clearing toxins that can build up and contribute to depression.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.