by Cal Orey
August 2, 1999
Depression plagues the creative
and the mundane. The disparate desperate driven to distress
by depression include painters, poets, actors and musicians
as well as truck drivers, clerks, electricians and
physicists. The victim list encompasses Vincent van Gogh,
Emily Dickinson, Audrey Hepburn, Virginia Woolf and Ludwig
von Beethoven, as well as millions of other sharers of
More than 17 million American men and women experience
depression in one form or another every year, according to
the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) in Alexandria,
Virginia. This includes the deeply destructive major, or
clinical, depression, the wide mood swings of bipolar
disorder (manic-depressive illness), and dysthymia, a
milder, long-lasting form of emotional suffering.
Twice as Many Women
In the depression scenario, women suffer twice as much: Two
times as many women as men endure clinical depression,
reports the NMHA. The mood-deteriorating effects of the
hormonal disruptions women are heir to may be partly to
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH),
about one of 10 Americans wades through at least one
depressive swamp sometime during his or her life.
The good news: Research shows that diet and lifestyle can
lower your risk of depression.
Birth of the Blues
Nowadays, mounting evidence suggests that depression may
result more from physiological factors than psychological
Some of the hidden reasons why you may be depressed
include: nutritional deficiencies, exacerbated by overdosing
on too much caffeine, sugar, alcohol and high fat foods;
allergies; anxiety and chronic stress; and a chemical
imbalance in the brain's gray matter. According to the NMHA,
people with depression often possess too little or too large
a quantity of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine,
serotonin and dopamine. Changes in levels of these brain
chemicals may cause, or contribute to, clinical depression.
The NMHA also reports that an imbalance of melatonin, a
chemical made by the body's pineal gland (located at the
base of the brain), contributes to a form of wintertime
depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This
hormone is made at increased levels in the dark. Therefore,
the body may oversupply this hormone during winter's
shortened daylight hours.
Since the B vitamins are often involved in the production of
energy, and a large component of depression may encompass
the inability to get out of bed and deal with the world,
experts believe that at least some of the signs of
depression are linked to B deficiencies. For instance,
studies cited in the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine
(Prima) by Michael Murray, ND and Joseph Pizzorno, ND,
demonstrate that folate deficiency and lack of vitamin B12
can compromise mental health (Drugs 45, 1993: 623-36; Lancet
336, 1990: 392-5).
Inositol: This vitamin is also part of the B vitamin
complex, and it, too, has shown its ability to lift spirits.
Research work in Israel shows that daily inositol given to
28 depressed patients for four weeks produced an overall
positive effect. (Eur Neuropsychopharmacol 7:2, May 1997:
147-55). Inositol is found in whole, unprocessed grains,
citrus fruits (except lemons) and brewer's yeast.
NADH: Allan Magaziner, DO, in his book The Idiot's
Complete Guide To Living Longer & Healthier (Alpha), reports
that brain energizing NADH, a metabolite of vitamin B3,
enhances the production of the key neurotransmitters
dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. "In a recent clinical
trial," he claims, "nearly all patients given NADH for
depression reported improvement in their symptoms and the
absence of side effects or adverse reactions."
Another substance winning the spotlight for its effect on
mood is SAM-e: S-adenosylmethionine. In New York on February
24, a symposium coordinated by the American Health
Foundation met to hear researchers present information from
studies of SAM-e's ability to possibly ease depression.
"SAM-e is a natural product. You and I have it but as
people age it declines in production in the body. And that's
why we believe supplementation in older people is a
beneficial means of bringing that back up and helping people
that have depression," said the lead symposium researcher,
John H. Weisburger, PhD, MD, Director Emeritus, American
Health Foundation in Valhalla, New York.
Another researcher, Teodoro Bottiglieri, PhD, Associate
Professor of Biomedical Studies and Neurology, Director of
Neuropharmacology at Baylor University reported: "SAM-e has
been shown to enhance brain dopamine and serotonin
neurotransmitter metabolism and receptor function. It may
also aid in the repair of myelin that surrounds nerve cells.
These mechanisms are likely to be responsible for the
antidepressant effect of SAM-e."
(Bottiglieri is co-author with Richard Brown, MD, and
Carol Colman of Stop Depression Now, a report on the powers
of SAM-e just published by G.P. Putnam's Sons.)
SAM-e was first touted as an antidepressant in Italy in
1973. It's been reported that nearly 40 clinical trials
demonstrate its beneficial effects as a natural
For instance, an analysis of more than 1000 people
suffering depression showed that the effect of
antidepressants in patients taking SAM-e was 17% to 38%
better than dummy preparations. Conventional antidepressants
show a 20% effectiveness rate (Bressa G. Acta Neurol Scand
S154, 1994: 7-14).
5-HTP: Another popular supplement to boost mood and
relieve depression is hydroxytryptophan. "This medication is
actually a brain chemical that is metabolized from
tryptophan into serotonin," says Magaziner. And since low
serotonin levels have been linked with depression, and
certain prescribed medications may up serotonin levels,
5-HTP is in demand.
"One of the more impressive studies supporting the
efficacy of 5-HTP for depression evaluated 100 people who
had previously found conventional antidepressant therapy to
be inadequate. Forty-three of these folks reported a
complete recovery, and eight showed significant
improvement," reports Magaziner. Not only has 5-HTP been
shown to work slightly better than drugs known as SSRIs
(these include Prozac), he adds, it has fewer side effects
than standard antidepressants, too. DHEA: Medical experts
also believe that levels of the hormone DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone)
may influence mood. Ray Sahelian, MD, in his book All About
DHEA (Avery) reports an interesting study conducted by Dr.
Owen Wolkowitz of the Department of Psychiatry, University
of California, San Francisco. A group of six depressed
middle-aged and elderly individuals who took DHEA found that
within a month they had better memory and mood. (Biological
Psychiatry 41, 1997: 311-18.) "In addition," adds Sahelian,
"other studies have also found that DHEA increases energy
levels and a sense of well being." But follow package
directions: Some people complain of greater irritability and
overstimulation with DHEA, when they take large amounts.
St. John's wort: still the most touted natural therapy for
defeating depression. In Europe, 23 clinical studies,
reviewed in the August 3, 1996 British Medical Journal,
found that this herb, also known as Hypericum perforatum,
can be helpful in alleviating cases of mild to moderate
depression. The work, which included 757 patients, has shown
that hypericum produced fewer side effects than conventional
Although experts have never satisfactorily explained
exactly how St. John's wort benefits the brain, some
theorize that it boosts serotonin levels. And it can help
"In a recent study of 20 people with SAD, four weeks'
worth of St. John's wort significantly alleviated feelings
of depression. Those people who added full-spectrum lights
to the treatment program gained an even greater benefit,"
notes Dr. Magaziner.
Valerian: Anxiety and stress, which can cause depression
and insomnia, may be helped by this herb, says the prolific
Dr. Sahelian in his book Kava: The Miracle Antianxiety Herb
(St. Martin's). In 101 Medicinal Herbs (Interweave), Steven
Foster reports that "Ten controlled clinical studies have
been published on valerian...one of which suggests that
valerian should be used for two to four weeks before daily
mood and sleep patterns improve."
Amino Acid Help
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, may also help
improve mood. (For more on protein, see page 65.) These
chemicals are used by the body to construct
neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that facilitate mental
For instance, the amino acid L-tyrosine is necessary for
the formation of transmitters adrenaline and dopamine. This
substance, therefore, is given to alleviate depression and
The substance L-dopa which is given to victims of
Parkinson's disease is concocted from tyrosine. And several
antidepressants alleviate bad moods by boosting the
interaction of brain chemicals related to tyrosine.
In addition, since tyrosine is used to make adrenaline,
this amino acid may be helpful for folks trying to cope with
the mood problems related to stress.
Another amino acid that experts believe useful for better
moods, L-methionine, is used by the body to make choline, a
crucial substance for brain function. (Choline goes into the
formation of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter.)
Methionine has been given to people suffering from
schizophrenia and depression as well as to those with
Parkinson's. Methionine plays a number of crucial roles in
the brain and body since it helps form other vital proteins.
For those concerned about preserving a positive mood,
researchers are positive that smoking worsens depression. A
study at the Department of Behavioral Services at the Henry
Ford Health System in Michigan found that daily smokers run
twice the risk for major depression compared to those who
only smoked occasionally.
Unfortunately, the investigators found that not only did
smoking seem to lead to depression, depression, in turn, led
to more smoking (Archives of General Psychiatry, 2/99).
"Smokers who have depression tend to see their smoking
become a daily habit and it may be because they use nicotine
to medicate their depressed mood," reported Naomi Breslau,
PhD, who headed the research. Over a five year period, the
researchers looked at about a thousand young people aged 21
to 30. They found that daily smokers generally start smoking
in adolescence, and those who report early depression are
three times as likely to eventually become daily smokers.
If you're feeling down, don't give up hope. Although
depression can prove to be a depressingly complicated
malady, daily, healthy habits can offset its effects.
Getting consistent exercise, dousing your cigarettes and
turning to herbal and nutritional help to treat mild
depression may defeat those blues.