Natural Treatments

“Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease,” wrote Hippocrates, the Greek physician who laid out the principles of medicine 2,500 years ago.

Hippocrates believed that diet and lifestyle were the first steps in the treatment of any disorder. He was very familiar with mood disorders, and textbooks from his school contain the earliest known descriptions of mania and depression.

Today, research in mood disorders is starting to catch up with Hippocrates. We know that sunlight, dietary modification and exercise can all aid in recovery from depression.

Scientists may have identified the “natural forces within us” that Hippocrates imagined. The brain contains “natural healers” which are designed to prevent mood problems. These substances, which have names like BDNF and bcl-2, are enhanced by physical exercise and by medications which treat mood.

Below are brief descriptions of natural therapies for mood disorders:

Exercise

Walking briskly for 30 minutes a day can improve mood and concentration after only 3-4 weeks. Dividing the walks into three 10-minute sessions may be even more helpful. Consult your doctor in case you have any health conditions, such as heart, lung or bone disease, which would interfere with exercise.

Diet

1)        Fish and Omega-3’s
The Western diet is often lacking in omega-3’s, which are found in fish, green-leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach), and walnuts. Omega-3’s make up 30% of the human brain, where they help coat brain cells. Salmon, anchovies and sardines have by far the highest content of these nutrients. Although the exact amount of omega-3’s needed is not yet known, eating 2 servings of salmon per week is generally enough to help mood. Read more.

2)       Low fat and sugar
The effects of fat and sugar on mood are not fully known yet, but they are likely to play a role in the development of mood disorders. We know, for example, that diets low in fat and sugar improve brain growth in ways that are similar to the benefits of exercise and medication.

Click to learn more about nutrition and the brain.

Light

Lack of sunlight can cause depression. Lightboxes, which produce wavelengths similar to those from the sun, can treat depression. Not all lightboxes are effective, so care is needed in choosing one.

Dawn simulators are another option – these turn on slowly while you are asleep and improve alertness, energy, and depression (though not as strong as lightboxes).

While light is helpful for depression, it can sometimes bring about mania or mood swings. In contrast, total darkness at night is helpful during the manic phase of mood. That’s difficult to live in, but new glasses allow people to achieve the same effect while still seeing clearly at night.

Vitamins and Supplements

Omega-3 fatty acids, folate, B-complex vitamins, N-Acetylcysteine and SAM-e are all natural to the human body (meaning they are already there to some degree) and have research supporting their use in mood disorders. Inositol is another supplement which can benefit bipolar depression. Consult your doctor before starting them as they need to be dosed correctly and can have side effects.

Several vitamins are available as prescription only and have benefits in mood, memory and attention deficit disorder. They include deplin, cerefolin, enlyte, vayarin and vayacog.

Minerals

Minerals are natural elements which may or may not be natural to the human body. Lithium is the most important mineral in the treatment of mood. It has been used for 0ver 50 years to relieve mania and depression, and is one of the only psychiatric treatments which can prevent suicide. Lithium’s health benefits were recognized long before this, as people throughout time have sought the healing powers of natural lithium bathes and spring waters. In fact, lithium’s benefits on the nerves made it a popular ingredient in early sodas (it was used in 7-up until 1949). Recently the health benefits of low dose lithium have been rediscovered, but we’ve also learned that it needs to be carefully monitored: high doses can be toxic.

Other minerals with possible roles in mood disorders include chromium and magnesium. The studies on these are not yet conclusive enough to make them main-line treatments.

Lithia Springs GA Add

 

Lithium spring water has been used since ancient times to heal mood, headaches and other illnesses. Recently these health benefits have been rediscovered in low doses of the mineral. The poster above is from Lithia Springs Georgia, one of many lithium health spas popular in the early 20th century.

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Lithium’s benefits also led soda companies, including 7-Up and Coca Cola (in a version called Lithia Coke), to include it in their early recipes.

Since 1950, lithium has been available in a tablet form which can be monitored with blood levels, making it safer and more effective than these beverages were.

 

Herbs

Although herbs are natural in the ground, they are not natural to our bodies, so treatment with herbs should be approached with the same caution that one would take with medication. Some herbs can cause medical problems or mood problems. For example, Kava kava can damage liver and skin, and St John’s Wort can cause mania. Research in this area is rapidly evolving, so consult your physician about herbs and other natural substances which can impact mood.

—Updated 3/18/17 by Chris Aiken, MD