Natural Treatments for Depression

Natural treatments for depression and anxiety include dietary changes, supplements (including CBD), exercise, light therapy, float/REST therapy, and general lifestyle changes.

Stress is a forerunner to both anxiety and depression.  Stress effects a neurochemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor.  Stress hormone cortisol, which plays a role in depression and anxiety, negatively effects the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), as well as serotonin and dopamine.  The lack of BDNF is associated with depression, major depression, and suicidal thoughts. The last is called suicidal ideation.  BDNF is necessary for the brain to keep growing and developing throughout the life span. This is called neuro-plasticity or brain plasticity.  It is essential for the growth of brain cells, called neurons, and the parts of these brain cells, called dendrites. Dendrites are branch like extensions that help cells communicate with one another.  Dendrites are much easier for the brain to grow or regenerate.  In short, BDNF production keeps the brain healthy and when people are depressed, they don’t make as much BDNF (84).  If this situation is prolonged, long-term wasting (called atrophy) of important brain areas can occur.  The areas include the hippocampus and other parts of the limbic system (85), which are important to emotional regulation and cognition (reasoning, memory, learning).

BDNF production is also affected by serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline.  These neurochemicals improve BDNF production from 1.4 percent to 400 % (four-fold increase), depending on the area of the brain (87).  BDNF can be increased through exercise (86), red/infrared light therapy, the right balance of omega three fatty acids to omega six fatty acids, and creatine supplementation.  Antidepressant therapy may also stimulate BDNF production (4).

Dietarily: Eating pre-biotics (starches that nurture good bacteria) like squash, onions, sweet potatoes, and asparagus.  These can also help increase brain derived neurotrophic factor (7;14) which is important for brain cells to proliferate (neuro-genesis).  Depression is associated with a lack of brain cell proliferation.  This means that the cells fail to form new connections or reproduce themselves.

Avoid the following: sugar, processed foods, and high fructose corn syrup.  All of these negatively impact BDNF (1).  Process foods also increase inflammation, which in the brain is associated with brain shrinkage.  If you wish to add something to your diet to improve mental functioning, the supplement Curcumin (active ingredient of Turmeric) may help to slow down aging in the brain (2; 3;4) and increase BDNF production.  Other foods known to do this are oily fish, blue berries, red grapes, and flavonoid rich foods (5;6).  Flavonoids are found in tea (green or black), and dark chocolate.  Magnesium and zinc supplements also improve BDNF (7).  Drinking coffee is now associated with decreased risk of depression by 20%. It is a natural anti inflammatory.

Try reducing or eliminating trans fats, as these are now associated with aggression and irritability.  These oils inhibit omega-3 production in the body (12).  This may be why high triglycerides have long been connected with depression, hostility, aggression, and domineering attitudes (23; 13).  Trans fats can also reduce testosterone levels in both sexes. It is necessary for muscle maintenance in both sex’s. Testosterone in women (And men) it is associated with libido or sexual desire.  So, when it goes down women are less likely to feel sexual.  It is also protective regarding histamine, so when it goes down, women may have more sinuous problems. And, when women go into menopause testosterone helps reduce the number of, and intensity of, hot flashes and night sweats. Testosterone loss may increase anxiety and depression in both sexes.

Taking omega-3 fatty acids alone can help the aging brain maintain the ability to make new connections between neurons, called synaptic plasticity.  Animal studies of the effects of omega-3s on brain health have shown that this supplement is capable of reversing the damage done to insulin receptors in the brain due to metabolic syndrome and its concurrent insulin resistance.  This should not be overlooked as a new study, which followed a group of older women for 15 years, reported that the subjects who experienced impaired fasting plasma glucose or suffered from insulin resistance were at greater risk of developing cognitive dysfunction.  Further, the subjects who presented with severe metabolic or cardiac risk factors had between a threefold and fourfold larger risk of developing cognitive disfunction.  Cognitive disfunction is often the precursor to cognitive decline, dementia, or brain atrophy (8).

In short, omega-3 fatty acids have a measurable effect on neuroplasticity, impacting connections between neurons, by improving insulin sensitivity (9).  Regarding suicidal thoughts and aggression, a lack of omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to play a pivotal role in the production of negative emotions.  Suicidal thoughts are associated with deficiencies in DHA, a type of highly active omega-3 fatty acid, to such an extent that it is related to a 14% greater risk of suicide.  This was found in a study of US military personnel (10).  Concerning aggression, a study on prison inmates in the UK found that introducing omega-3’s (along with minerals and vitamins) into prisoners’ diet resulted in a 37% decrease in violent offences, and a 26% decrease in offences overall (11).

Furthermore, eating strategically may increase serotonin.  The amino acid Tryptophan is a necessary building block (precursor) to serotonin, and it is readily available in protein rich foods and carbohydrates.  But, another amino acid in protein has been found to slow, or even block, the production of serotonin so, ideally to increase serotonin production in the brain, eat sweet or starchy (ideally complex) carbohydrates without protein (15; 16;5).  This may help to separate the pro-serotonin nutrients from the anti-serotonin ones.  Eat low or fat free and protein free carbohydrates on an empty stomach (about three hours after a protein).  The food source (like gram crackers, pretzels etc.,) should have at least 25 to 35 grams of carbohydrates and no more than 4 grams of protein.  Try to eat less than three grams of fat per serving as this can increase your weight.  If you want a quick boost to your mood try a simple carbohydrate, but keep in mind that this will raise your blood sugar and it may deplete levels of dopamine, another Nero-chemical associated with wellbeing (17).  Here, chronic dopamine surges from easily digestible sources may lead to a loss of dopamine activity in the brain, as dopamine receptors stop functioning properly.  This can result in constant cravings for foods that make dopamine (18) and ultimately weight gain.  You should feel an effect 20 to 40 minutes after eating (5).  Tryptophan is also necessary to make the sleep hormone melatonin as well as niacin, also called vitamin B3 (19). Sleep disruptions are common in depression, so this is important. Eat Tryptophan rich foods like the following: algae spirulina, bananas, beans, or legumes (like green peas or chickpeas), dairy, eggs, grass fed beef or lamb, Wild fish like cod or salmon, nuts like cashews or walnuts, potatoes, poultry, sesame seeds, and whole grains. The last includes brown rice, corn, oats, and quinoa.

 The following foods may help to naturally increase serotonin: turmeric, dark chocolate, green tea, cold-water fatty fish, and fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut).  The last helps balance gut bacteria as too much of a” bad” bacterium called lipopolysaccharides can lower serotonin levels (15;20;21).  Also, adding vitamins (B6, B9, and B12), and the supplement SAM-e, that is S-adenosylmethionine, to your diet can help deal with depression (22; 23).  Magnesium has been found to substantially help with treatment resistant depression (24) as have vitamin D and amino acids, especially tryptophan (25) and Glycine.  The amino acid Glycine slows or stops the production of neurotransmitters that excite the nervous system, and therefore cause anxiety, often called the fight or flight response (26).  When it is pared with glutamate it promotes the actions of glutamate in the forebrain, which may help in cognitive or thought processes (81).  Glutamate is both excitatory and inhibitory.  It can cause excitement in the brain and nervous system.  Conversely, when turned into GABA it is inhibitory, causing feelings of calm.  This is as glutamate is necessary to the production of GABA, or y-aminobutyric acid, which like glycine inhibits producing feelings of relaxation (27;28).  In animal model’s glycine increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.  It is possible that glycine helps psychological problems associated with a lack of serotonin (29;30).  Glycine can be found in high protein foods like fish, dairy, legumes, and meat.

The amino acid Phenylalanine (found in the algae supplements Chlorella and Spirulina) is converted into phenylethylamine (PEA) in the body (31).  PEA boosts dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, sexuality, and the brain’s reward system overall.  This is why dopamine helps with feelings of wellbeing, with treating depression, and with reducing anxiety.

The following foods may naturally increase dopamine: bananas, (the riper the better), almonds, apples, watermelons, cherries, yogurt, beans, eggs, and meats (17).  You can also take L-tyrosine supplements, including collagen, or tyrosine rich foods.  This is as the amino acid tyrosine is an important precursor, or building block, of dopamine.  Dopamine then forms norepinephrine, another mood related chemical.  Tyrosine can be found in protein rich foods (32).

Sources are:  almonds, peanuts; eggs; lean meat, cheese, turkey, chicken and fish; also, green vegetables like spinach and kale; and garbanzo beans (chickpeas).

Supplements that help boost dopamine, are L-Tyrosine (see above), Mucuna, L-theanine, and Rhodiola.

Mucuna or velvet bean.  It has up to 5 percent L-Dopa or levodopa.  It can cross the blood-brain barrier (this is a natural shield protecting the brain from noxious substances) and increase dopamine levels in the brain.  It has been used as a natural treatment for stress, depression, and Parkinson’s disease.  It also boosts serotonin and norepinephrine.  If you take the supplement, take it as an extract with 15% L-Dopa, take 300 mg two times per day (33).

L-theanine is an amino aid found in green tea and it is known to create relaxation, but not sleepiness.  It helps to treat depression, anxiety, and stress (both physical and mental).  It also improves cognitive functioning (learning and memory).  It helps boost GABA and serotonin in the brain, as well as dopamine.  This is as it can cross the blood-brain barrier.  100 mgs will improve attention and focus.  It is recommended that a person take 200 mg of L-theanine two to three times per day (33).  Green tea (organic, one cup a day) is also associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk.  Regarding weight loose, in one study women with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS who drank green tea experienced a greater weight reduction.

Rhodiola or golden root can help with depression, improve work performance, reduce fatigue, and treat stress (mental and physical).  It helps stabilize dopamine and supports its reuptake, leading to decreases in: anxiety, fatigue, and depression.  It also increases the ability to deal with stress.  If you want a supplement, get it in standardized root form, (Rhodiola rosea root) containing 3% total rosavines and at least 1% salidroside’s.  Take 170 mg per day, twice a day (33).

Multi-vitamins and minerals can help boost mood: zinc, vitamin B6, and folate, are all needed for dopamine synthesis and neurotransmission.  They are often depleted by stress, medications (including hormone-based birth control/HRT), poor diet, and toxic environmental exposure.

Keep in mind that too much dopamine is unhealthy or dangerous.  Talk to a health car provider.  Don’t mix dopamine supplements with methyldopa, antidepressants, or antipsychotic drugs without talking to a doctor and pharmacist.  Tyrosine and mucuna can interact with other supplements like St. John’s Wort, 5-HTP, Tryptophan, and SAM-e. Don’t take if pregnant or breast feeding.

Other dietary interventions: Kava extract has been effective for some people as an alternative to pharmaceuticals (34).  The hormone DHEA or Dehydroepiandrosterone (35) a is a treatment for depression (36).  DHEA can be made from good fats that are plentiful in omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish.  Plant and non-meat sources include pumpkin seeds, raw butter, ghee, oils (flax, palm, olive and cod liver) (37).  In Canada DHEA as a supplement is available only by prescription (38).  DHEA is available for sale as a supplement without a prescription in the US (39).

To increase the calming/anxiety reducing neurotransmitter GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid (40), eat foods high in glutamic acid. These include: oats or whole wheat or whole grains, almonds or tree nuts, oranges and other citrus fruits, bananas, beef liver, halibut, lentils, broccoli, brown rice, rice bran, potato’s (41). Also, take vitamin B6 (41).  You can take glycine supplements or glycine rich collagen as well (see section on collagen).

Chlorella, a green alga, has been shown in clinical trials to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety (42).

Inulin, a high fibre pro and prebiotic found in many fruits and vegetables, is also showing promise as a treatment for depression.

avocados may slow the breakdown of serotonin and Dopamine.

Cannabidiol (CBD) treats depression, anxiety, and many of the associated problems.  It is being studies as an alternative treatment for many physical problems, including depression, anxiety, inflammation, and sleep disorders.  CBD does not have the effect of getting a person “high” or giving them feelings of euphoria that tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, does.  It can have anti-depressant like (43;40) and anti-anxiety (43) like effects thought.  According to animal studies, CBD can positively impact serotonin receptors (43).  Balancing serotonin is important for emotional wellbeing.  CBD can also help lower stress levels (40), which if unchecked can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and other problems.

Cannabidiol (CBD) acts quickly regarding its antidepressant like effects (45).

Cannabidiol is a possible treatment for panic disorder.  This should not be overlooked as up to five percent of the worldwide population suffers from panic attacks.  Studies using human subjects are showing that CBD can be used to treat psychological problems linked to depression, like panic attacks, panic disorder, and anxiety (46).

Dosages (46): for panic disorder, a single 300 mg dose was able to decrease anxiety levels markedly.  For social anxiety disorder, 600 mg has been found to reduce anxiety significantly.  CBD works best if it is taken on a regular basis.

CBD does not appear to cause side effects in most people, regardless of how it is taken (topically, orally, or as an inhalant). But, if an individual is sensitive to CBD, they may experience the following: fatigue, diarrhea, changes in weight or appetite.  Be aware that CBD can interact with medications (especially those warning not to consume grapefruit) and increase the risk of liver damage.  Higher doses of CBD may cause live problems in humans, as they have in animal studies (47).

Speak to a qualified medical professional before taking this, or any other substance.  Only get products from a reputable source.  Check all of the labels carefully to ensure that the ingredients are safe and that the products strength of the active ingredient is within the bounds of what is recommended.  Be aware that CBD is not legal in every part of the world and that laws vary within countries and between them.  For instance, it is legal to have 0.3% CBD made from hemp in the US, and CBD is legal in Canada, but it is not legal to transport it form one country to another, unless you have an import license.

A good resource book to learn about dosing is: Leinow, L., and Birnbaum, J., (2017).  A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis.  This book outlines a way to determine ideal dosages based on one’s condition and weight.

Also, go to this website:

Exercise: is important to emotional well-being as it is thought to increase the production of some neurotransmitters associated with feelings of well-being or happiness.  These are Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin (48).  Exercise reduces physical (somatic) complaints in pre-and peri-menopausal women (14; 43).  Exercise also increases blood circulation in the brain, which positively impacts hormones and increases dopamine levels (17).  Menopausal women who exercise have been shown to assess their symptoms as being less important, and so cope better with them (50).  Exercise has been proven to increase the production of the hormone DHEA, or Dehydroepiandrosterone (35), a treatment for depression (36).  Increased production of DHEA is linked to improved self-esteem and reduced fatigue (51), as well as anti-aging, improved immune response (35) and improved memory (36).  DHEA can change to estrogen in women and testosterone in men (52).  Exercise also lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Exercise may galvanize the release of anti-inflammatory properties from muscles.  Inflammation is associated with increased risk of depression.  It has been found that 20 minutes of moderate exercise (fast walking) stimulates the immune response by producing an anti-inflammatory reaction within cells.  By the end of a 20-minute workout, the body will experience a 5% decrease in pro-inflammatory proteins called tumor necrosis factor (TNF), which regulates inflammation both locally and systemically (53).  Exercise also improve BDNF production.

Yoga: has been shown to increase levels of neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is important in improving mood and lowers anxiety (40).  Yoga can also improve the ability to regulate (control) emotions, including depression, anger, and anxiety (54).  Sahaja Yoga, a type of yoga focused on meditative practices, was shown in studies to be a superior treatment for anxiety and depression when compared with cognitive behavioral therapy and stress management training (55).  Depressed and anxious Individuals have been shown to have low amounts of GABA in their nervous system (cerebrospinal fluid).  MRI spectroscopy has been used to estimate the amount of GABA in people who are depressed, and the levels are low compared to controls. Interestingly a study found that just a single one-hour session of yoga increased GABA levels by 27% (56).

Light therapy: (especially blue light) has recently been proven more effective than anti-depressants in treating depression (57) and combining light therapy with antidepressants was even more effective.  Blue light exposure helps anxiety as well.  It increases production of serotonin and may strengthen and stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for processing emotion and language.  This enables better handling of stressful situations and greater mood regulation (58).  Ideally you would get enough light naturally, by walking outside in sunlight for 15 minutes a day.  Alternatively, you can buy an inexpensive light box at most retailers or online.  Another option is installing full-spectrum high-quality (fluorescent) lightbulbs in your home and workplace.  Keep in mind that blue light can harm your eyes, so don’t look directly at it.  Also, avoid blue light at night as it may affect the ability to go to sleep (including TV and tablet screens).  And, not getting adequate sleep is associated with depression and anxiety.  If you purchase a blue light box place it on a high enough surface to allow the light to hit the lower part of the eye, as this is where blue spectrum light naturally is absorbed (59).  Other light therapies proven to help depression are red light/infrared light.

The following have also been shown to improve mood in depressed individuals:

Music therapy: can treat depression (60).  Music therapy is done with a music therapist specifically.  It can involve passive (listening) or active (playing) of music deemed appropriate.  It can be done alone (best choice for those over 60) or in a group (best for those younger than 60).  Regarding choice of music, happy music, when the individual is consciously trying to become happy, has the greatest, or most positive, effect.  If someone is depressed, they should avoid angry or sad music as it may magnify their feelings and increase obsessive, negative thoughts (called rumination).  If you wish to try music therapy, but can’t engage a music therapist, individual playlists for depression can be found online. There are music therapy resources at the end of this section.

Float/REST therapy: or restrictive environmental stimulation therapy, is considered to be an alternative treatment in North America, but is accepted as a medical treatment in some European countries (61).  It involves lying in an isolation tank filled with body temperature water and 1000 pounds of Epson salts.  This has been proven beneficial for the following:  reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, lowering blood pressure, and improving pain management, improving sleep quality, enhancing optimism (62; 63), and increasing a sense of well being (64).  The benefits are felt by some right away, but others take three sessions to experience them.  It has been shown in clinical trials that the maximum desired pain and stress relief will be experienced after 12 (45 minute) sessions, with two per week (61).

Psychological impact of floating.  Float therapy has been shown to reduce negative psychological qualities or experiences while increasing positive ones, improving immune function, and decreasing pain intensity (62; 65).  Regarding stress, floating is more effective in those suffering from severe stress (harder to get to respond to stress reduction) than many other techniques (61).  In one study, after 12 float sessions participants (male and female) found that their areas of pain felt better, and their reported experiences of anxiety, depression, and stress were lower.  Conversely, there were reports of improvement to subjects’ sleep quality, feelings of optimism and, in the case of nursing mothers,’ breast milk production (called prolactin).  All of these benefits, other than the prolactin, were maintained for up to 4 months after the last float session (65).  Some people have reported that floating resulted in feelings of euphoria, increased creativity, and altered states of consciousness (61).

Float improves burnout.  For those individuals who are experiencing burn out, or a lack of desire to return too, or to continue, to work.  float therapy may be of benefit.  In a small study (six participants in a 10-week study) combining talk therapy with float therapy, all of the participants reported an ability to continue working full time, as well as reporting improvements to their quality of life, and positive psychological transformations or experiences (66).

Floating treats generalized anxiety disorder.  Float/REST also shows promise as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder.  In a human trial 37% of the treatment group had reached full remission, and problems with the following were enhanced: emotional regulation, sleep, and depression.  These improvements were sustained for all conditions, except depression, for six months (67).  These effects may be the result of float therapy’s ability to reduce levels of both the stress hormone cortisol, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), the hormone that regulates the adrenal glands (68).

How float/REST impacts stress related hormones: these are decreased by floating.  The positive effects of floating on stress hormones can last for up to four months (69).  These benefits should not be overlooked as the HPA axis (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) plays a primary role in the stress (fight or flight) response.  Its hormones (ACTH or adrenocorticotropic hormone, epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and aldosterone) have been shown to lower during float therapy.  So, float therapy reduces activity in the area of the brain most associated with a stress response, the pituitary-adrenal axis.  This is important as ACTH (which increases cortisol) is released in reaction to stress.  ACTH is related to circadian rhythms and so can disrupt sleep regulation.  It is produced when the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is stimulated by a potential stressor.  Long term activation of this system results in, or contributes too, many health problems including anorexia, cardiovascular problems, depression, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and osteoporosis (70).  The HPA axis both affects, and is affected by, different brain and nervous system components (70).  It can also alter its functioning as a response to environmental factors.  The HPA axis hormones can influence the autonomic nervous system, which controls vital functions like body temperature, pain, appetite, and blood pressure, heart rate, and digestion.  It also works with, and is affected by, many areas of the brain including the limbic system, (region known to control mood and motivation), the amygdala (fear, responses to danger), and the hippocampus (memory formation, motivation and mood).  Keep in mind that long-term cortisol production is associated with weight gain and obesity.  It also results in an upswing craving for sugar and fat.  The sugar helps full blood sugar, which cortisol elevates to generate quick energy.  The fat may be a way for cortisol to perpetuate itself, as it is made from fat, as well as a way to provide the body with a way to store energy (71).  Cortisol production can increase during the menopausal transition as a reaction to surges in estrogen (72).

See the section of float/REST therapy for a more detailed description of how this type of therapy effects the brain and body.

Other suggestions: Relaxation training has been shown to treat depression (60).  Manage stress, high stress levels are connected to low dopamine levels (17).  Sleep hygiene is important.  Having a nightly routine helps maintain dopamine levels (17).  Media therapy and bibliotherapy, as well as journaling, are helpful in managing the symptoms of depression.  There is a list of resources at the end of this section and in appendix I.

You may want to increase coffee consumption.  A study done by Harvard University found that women who drink four or more cups of caffeinated coffee per day are 20% less likely to become depressed.  This finding did not hold true for other types of caffeinated beverages (76).  This may be as coffee is a natural anti-inflammatory (77).  Keep in mind that caffeine may desensitize brain cells to serotonin (82) and dopamine levels decrease after drinking coffee (17).  It can also reduce testosterone and influence the release of estrogen, causing temporary upswings in production followed by a reduction in overall levels.  This is as it increases the production f a protein called sex hormone binding globulin or SHBG (78).

Avoid artificial sweeteners (aspartame) as these inhibit the uptake and conversion of tryptophan (15;79), which the body turns into serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin.  Do not eat the following dopamine disrupting foods: sugar, processed foods, or high fructose corn syrup (17).

Other pre-and perimenopause related medical problems that cause depressive symptoms and anxiety are thyroid problems (73), deficiencies in B vitamins (especially B 6 and 12 [74]) and iron (anemia) due to excessive bleeding (80), loss of magnesium due to sweating, and lack of: zinc, selenium, iodine, chromium, calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids, some types of proteins, and some carbohydrates (75).  Keep in mind that taking certain drugs may increase the risk of developing depression.  Sleep apnea, the onset of which can coincide with the menopausal transition, is also associated with depression and anxiety.

This information is for educational and informational purposes only.  It is not to take the place of medical advice or treatment.   Seek out a qualified health care provider if you have questions or need help.  Dr. Grant is not responsible for any possible health consequences of anyone who follows or reads the information in this content.  Everyone, but especially those taking medication (over the counter or prescription) should talk with a physician before undertaking any changes to their lifestyle or diet (including taking supplements).

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