8 Options for Treating Depression Without Medication

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For those who suffer from depression, antidepressants are often prescribed to relieve symptoms and to eradicate the condition altogether. The number of antidepressant items prescribed over the past six years has increased by 34.8%, from 61.9 million items in 2015/2016 to 83.4 million items in 2021/2022 (1). But, antidepressants don’t work for all patients. In fact, studies have shown that medication is best suited for those with severe depression.

Do you suffer from mild depression? Are you worried about the side effects of antidepressants? If so, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of non-medication options for treating depression. “Many older adults don’t want to be dependent on antidepressants, or are sensitive to their common side effects, such as dry mouth, dizziness, sleepiness, and weight gain,” says Dr. Darshan Mehta, medical director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Fortunately, there are nondrug options available to help treat and manage mild depression.

Looking for a boost or alternative to treat depression? Check out these eight:

1. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

One of the most advanced treatment options for depression is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). This treatment option is ideal for those who have not responded well to medications or psychotherapy. TMS is a safe and effective treatment that is extremely low risk. After treatment, the biggest risk is a headache that can be treated with over-the-counter medication.

So how does TMS work? TMS uses electromagnetic pulses that impact the brain’s target the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is underactive which can cause depression. By using electromagnetic pulses, TMS is able to activate cells within the brain which are thought to release neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Since depression is thought to be the result of an imbalance of these chemicals in the brain, TMS can restore that balance and, thus, relieve depression (2).

3. Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

Another treatment option that uses electric current is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT). ECT involves the use of a current to produce a controlled seizure along with anesthesia and muscle relaxant to avoid convulsions. The burst of synchronized brain wave activity changes the brain wave pattern in the brain which produces a profound antidepressant response. Treatment typically lasts for 2-4 weeks with treatments 3 days a week. While this treatment is more involved when compared to TMS, it’s proven to be effective in minimizing depression symptoms.

ECT may be a good treatment option when medications aren’t tolerated or other forms of therapy haven’t worked (3). In some cases ECT is used:

  • During pregnancy, when medications can’t be taken because they might harm the developing fetus
  • In older adults who can’t tolerate drug side effects
  • In people who prefer ECT treatments over taking medications
  • When ECT has been successful in the past

3. Serotonin-Enhancing Diet

Most antidepressants such as SSRIs work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. When serotonin levels are increased, mood is usually improved and stabilized. If medications haven’t worked or have caused harmful side effects, you may want to consider switching to a serotonin-enhancing diet. There are plenty of foods that naturally boost serotonin levels including:

  • Foods high in Omega 3s such as salmon, herring, anchovies, and sardines
  • Coconut oil
  • High protein foods such as turkey and chicken

You may also want to minimize caffeine intake. Caffeine has shown to reduce serotonin levels. If you need a boost of energy, try B12 or L-Tyrosine.

4. Mushroom Compounds

Psilocybin, a known psychedelic, is a compound found in mushrooms. While studies in the past have sought to determine the effects of psilocybin in treating depression and anxiety, new studies have started to resurge. A recent study found that psilocybin was successful in improving mood and decreasing depression symptoms (4). Though the findings are preliminary, the compound has proven thus far to offer fast and long-term treatment for those with depression.

Research demonstrates that relief lasted up to five weeks after two doses of psilocybin (5). Separate studies show that a single dose of psilocybin can lift anxiety and depression in cancer patients. In contrast, many depressed patients need to take antidepressants every day and/or attend therapy every week to get similar benefits. These forms of treatment can also continue for years.

5. Mood-Enhancing Supplements

There are a variety of supplements that have proven to be effective in enhancing mood. Common supplements include St. John’s Wort, SAMe, 5-HTP, Fish oil, and L-Theanine. But, before taking supplements, it’s important to be aware of the potential side effects. For example, St. John’s Wort may decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills. An incorrect dosage of 5-HTP can cause digestive issues, sleepiness, and anxiety. Be sure to clear any mood-enhancing supplements with your doctor to ensure they won’t interfere or negatively interact with any existing treatments.

Aromatherapy, essential oils, and teas  can also help relieve mild depression. Lavender has been found to enhance relaxation and possibly help relieve anxiety and depression.

6. Video Games

These days video games have proven to be for more than just entertainment. In fact, a study conducted by UC San Francisco And University of Washington found that a specially designed video game improved depression symptoms in older adults. The game targets underlying cognitive control problems that are found in late-life depression sufferers. The study determined that as cognitive function improves, mood improves as well. In turn, depression symptoms decrease or are eliminated altogether.

7. Light Therapy

A lack of Vitamin D has been linked to depression and seasonal affective disorder (7). This condition often sets in during the dark and short winter days. Light therapy involves sitting near a brightly lit box that replicates natural sunlight. Treatment starts with daily 15 minute sessions which can be increased to two hour sessions. While light therapy doesn’t cure the root cause of depression, it can help with easing symptoms.

“Vitamin D deficiency is very common and ongoing research has shown its impact on physical and mental well-being,” says Dr. Michael Holick, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine. “Vitamin D influences many cellular functions in the body through its anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties.”

8. Exercise

Exercise is good for more than just physical health. In fact, it’s also been praised for its ability to boost and stabilize mood. Intensive exercise causes the brain to release serotonin and other feel-good chemicals. Regularly daily exercise can reduce anxiety and improve mood (8). While physical activity won’t cure depression, it’s proven to be helpful in minimizing the symptoms.

Conclusion

No two patients are the same, especially when it comes to treating depression. If you’re interested in trying non-medication treatments for depression, keep these 8 options in mind. Of course, be sure to clear any treatments with your health care providerdoctor before proceeding.

(1) Antidepressant prescribing increases by 35% in six years

(2) How Does TMS Work?

(3) Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

(4) Psilocybin-Induced Decrease in Amygdala Reactivity Correlates with Enhanced Positive Mood in Healthy Volunteers

(5) Magic mushrooms may ‘reset’ the brains of depressed patients

(6) Improving late life depression and cognitive control through the use of therapeutic video game technology: A proof-of-concept randomized trial

(7) Vitamin D and Depression: Where is all the Sunshine?

(8) Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms

by Craig Gustafson

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