Blame the bad economy, the “normal” pressures of modern life, brain chemical imbalances or the labeling of what just may be the inescapable human condition— regardless of the cause, depression is rampant. About 1 in 10 Americans will face major, or clinical, depression at some point, and women have a 70 percent higher risk than men. Fewer than half of sufferers seek treatment, but if it’s not addressed, depression can seriously impact your productivity, your relationships and your overall health. A recent study found that depression increases the risk of heart disease more than smoking or having a family history of cardiac problems.
The most commonly prescribed antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft, stop your body’s reabsorption of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter serotonin. This causes its levels to increase, which boosts mood. But these meds also pose a long list of potential side effects, many of them identical to depression symptoms.
What’s more, SSRIs may be no more effective than a placebo at treating depression. A recent National Institute of Mental Health study followed 4,000 depression sufferers and found that 75 percent of them still experienced at least five symptoms after taking antidepressants for three months.
Are you really depressed?
If antidepressant drugs don’t work that well, why are Americans taking 50 percent more of them than we were 20 years ago? “Many physicians think of antidepressants as a panacea and prescribe them without addressing the underlying causes of the depression or giving people the tools they need to help themselves,” says psychiatrist James S. Gordon, M.D., founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression (Penguin).
Earlier this year, researchers reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry that family doctors are prescribing antidepressants to a quarter of patients who exhibit a symptom or two but have not been diagnosed with depression. Another recent study found that at the same time, fewer people are visiting psychotherapists because insurance offers better coverage for pharmaceuticals.
Your doctor may also be quick to write you a prescription without exploring other conditions that have the same symptoms as depression. “You might feel depressed because you love sushi and actually have mercury poisoning. Or you could be a fish hater so you have an omega-3 deficiency,” says Mark Hyman, M.D., founder of The UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Mass., and author of The UltraMind Solution (Scribner). “Or maybe you’re taking an acid blocker for reflux and as a result your vitamin B12 is depleted, which also leads to depression.”
Other conditions that Hyman says can make you feel blue include low thyroid function, food sensitivities like celiac disease, sugar addiction, systemic yeast infection, adrenal exhaustion, hormone imbalances and nutrient deficiencies. He recommends visiting a naturopathic physician (N.D.) or an integrative M.D. for testing to determine if any of these issues are the real reason you’re feeling down.
You can also try lifestyle changes and natural remedies before going on meds. For a quicker recovery, combine these holistic approaches, advises Gordon, who has helped depressed patients using mind-body medicine techniques for 40 years. Where should you start? “Ask yourself, ‘What am I doing now that actually makes me feel better?’ ” Gordon suggests. Do that, then explore the other possibilities described here.