Could nutrition improve mental health better than prescription drugs?
“Depression” is a word that we throw around a lot and many people may not realize the weight it carries, especially in today’s world. The kind of depression that people many times use out of context may describe the normal ups-and-downs and the fleeting emotions of everyday life.
What is it?
Depression – the kind that completely debilitates you, feels unending, is deeply lonely, and seems void of life – is a serious health condition, and is now the world’s leading cause of disability.
In fact, 350 million people around the world suffer from depression. That number is higher than the most recent recorded population of the United States. This common mental disorder affects people of all ages, however, there are more women than men with depression.
Our brains are complex structures and the pathology of depression isn’t one-size-fits-all. According to Harvard Medical School current research suggests that the cause of depression isn’t just a matter of having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals or neurotransmitters, otherwise called a “chemical imbalance”.
Depression is a multifaceted disease that has many possible causes. For example, a combination of any of the following could lead to depression :
impaired mood regulation by the brain
family history and genetics
traumatic and/or stressful life events
co-occurring medical problems
Simply because someone feels blue from time to time, does not mean we should dismiss what they’re experiencing. Oftentimes, depression may begin by a seemingly harmless bad day. However, people who are diagnosed with depression usually:
Feel depressed for at least two weeks accompanied by lack of sleep, general disinterest in pleasurable things, guilt, low energy, inability to concentrate, increase or decrease in appetite, poor psychomotor skills, and/or suicidal thoughts;
Experience major depressive and manic episodes;
Become impaired in social contexts such as work, school, family functions, etc.;
Feel this way without the physiological alteration of substances (e.g., drugs or medications); and
Come from a deep, seemingly sourceless place (i.e., not bereavement).
How to spot signs of depression:
One set of diagnostic criteria commonly used to assess depression is known as “SIGECAPS,” which stands for sleep, interest, guilt, energy, concentration, appetite, psychomotor and suicide.
If four or more of these items are a concern, it indicates major depression.
Prescription Drugs and Depression
Doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists first started using depression medication in the late 1950s and have since categorized them into three groups:
Tricyclic agents (TCAs) are used to treat depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chronic pain.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to treat depression, panic disorder, compulsive disorder, bulimia nervosa, and social phobia.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are used to treat all types of depression.
On the surface, it seems like drug companies have a handle on things and provide victims of depression with more than enough options in terms of medication. But even when medications do seem to work, they may not be working by addressing the root issues and at best are just a band-aid approach to recovery.
Associate Director of the Placebo Research Program at Harvard, Dr. Irving Kirsch’s research suggests that “the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveal that most (if not all) of the benefits are due to the placebo effect.”
This is deeply saddening, especially when you consider that seventeen million Americans take antidepressant drugs at a total cost of $11.3 billion.
In his study “Newer v. older antidepressants in long-term pharmacotherapy,” psychiatrist J. Guy Edwards expresses disappointment “that after fifty years of research we still do not have a wonder drug to prevent (or treat) depression” and that those they do have are full of “troublesome and dangerous side-effects; and there are no clinically significant signs of a more effective and safer antidepressant.”
Between the placebo studies and a lifelong psychiatrist’s acknowledgment that a truly and wholly effective antidepressant does not exist, many people want (and arguably need) a new solution – a natural solution.
Nutrition and Depression
Disclaimer: Please consult a physician before beginning any treatment program or making any adjustment to your health care, diet, and/or lifestyle. Do not remove yourself from any prescribed medications or treatments without consulting your doctor. Any and all dietary supplements or nutritional products and treatments discussed on this site are not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any disease. The information contained in this site is for general information and for educational purposes only.
Fortunately, educator and clinical psychologist Julia Rucklidge has dedicated the last decade-plus to investigating the role of micronutrients in the expression of mental illness, specifically in ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and more.
In her 2014 TEDx talk “The Surprisingly Dramatic Role of Nutrition in Mental Health,” Rucklidge called our attention to the fact that due to the nature of our current health care system, the first thing doctors will try to remedy our problems with are psychiatric medication(s). Her research suggests that vitamins and minerals, otherwise known as micronutrients, are beneficial in treating mental illness, which isn’t surprising considering the food we eat on a daily basis helps to build the neurotransmitters our bodies need to support mental health.
In an early study, Rucklidge led a randomized clinical trial that started in 2009 and used micronutrients to treat ADHD in adults. Rucklidge and her team found that within eight weeks, twice as many people responded to the micronutrients than to the placebo. People in the micronutrient group had their depression go into remission. They also experienced lower levels of hyperactivity and aggression. She also confirmed that after one year, individuals who continued using micronutrients maintained their changes or improved even further.
In another study, Rucklidge observed how micronutrients reduced anxiety and stress, and improved mood after a natural disaster. She and her team found that the micronutrients helped in all those areas “much” to “very much” in just over a month.
Of course, Rucklidge still sees the value in prescription drugs in the context of our current medical model. She admits that many treatments save lives but often fail to work in the long-run. We can see this idea echoed in our current reality – that even while drug companies purport to help people with their antidepressants, there are more depressed individuals on this planet than there have ever been.
10 Nutrients Crucial for Your Brain
Complex carbohydrates (for brain power)
Proteins (for healthy neurotransmitters)
Healthy fats (like avocados, nuts, seeds, and coconut oil)
B Vitamins (to remain stress-free and happy)
Vitamin C (to boost mood, memory, intelligence, and brain function)
Vitamin D (for memory, mood, and the fight against cognitive decline)
Magnesium (for focus, concentration, improved mood, and good sleep)
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids (helps ward off memory loss, mood swings, dementia, and more)
Iron (for improved metabolism)
Zinc (for proper immune and digestive functioning)
Nutritional deficiencies occur when your body is not absorbing the necessary amount of nutrient. Failing to give your body the proper nutrients it needs can result in short and long-term problems (e.g., digestive problems, skin problems, bone growth complications, and potentially dementia).[9,10]
Although people may question the legitimacy of micronutrients and other natural remedies, evidence shows us that drug companies may not have anything better to offer. Prescription drugs only offer temporary fixes and do not address the root cause, whereas micronutrients seem to be pointing us in the right direction for a more complete solution to mental health support.
So, if you or someone you know is treating depression or other mental health disorders, Rucklidge says “it is worth giving it a go first to seriously change diet and if necessary, try a broad-spectrum micronutrient supplement, and if that approach doesn’t work, then there is always medication to fall back on.”
And in whatever you choose to do, know this: you are loved.
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