Depression, Drugs, and DHA

Discover what is probably the single most important nutritional therapy to reduce your risk of depression – or to alleviate a depression that has already settled over you.

Depression often boils down to a biochemical imbalance…of fats in the foods we eat.

The role of nutritional deficiencies and imbalances in creating chronic disease states is enormously underestimated by the U.S. medical community. This is slowly changing as physicians recognize the huge role of diet and nutrition in heart disease and cancer, the two leading killers in most Western nations. But the role of nutrition is still very much underappreciated in less deadly conditions, including allergies, asthma, chronic upper respiratory infection, and arthritis; and in psychiatric diagnoses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The truth is that a huge body of research supports the use of nutrition to treat all of these issues; but, as long as people think they can improve their health by simply popping a pill (or two, or eight), the more rigorous path of nutritional change is not likely to catch on as it should. Evidence continues to build that the use of multiple prescriptions is a risky proposition, and that a diet and lifestyle overhaul that brings the body to its ideal balance is far more rewarding.

My book, Brighter Mind, is about the use of nutrition (including supplements) and exercise to improve and optimize cognitive function throughout life. This is my passion, and in the years it took me to write that book, I pored over thousands of research papers from peer-reviewed journals, and research institutions from all over the world.

Initially, I wasn’t looking for answers about healing depression; my focus was improvement of memory and mental performance. Still I couldn’t avoid concluding that the nutritional changes so important for optimal brain and nervous system function are equally important for healing depression and anxiety.

In particular, I found that diets unbalanced in terms of their content of amino acids (protein building blocks), essential fatty acids, and “fast-burning” carbohydrates didn’t support mental sharpness or mental/psychological well-being. Neither did diets deficient in vitamins B6, B12, C, and E, and in folic acid, thiamin, iron, zinc, magnesium, and the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Not only did a diet imbalanced and lacking in these ways detract from mental function, mood, and ability to remember – study after study shouted to me that these dietary imbalances were downright detrimental.

The clincher: In studies where more appropriate balance of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids was achieved through dietary improvements or the addition of brain-boosting supplements, depressive symptoms lifted either partially or completely. As I continued to delve, I discovered that the diet most supportive of cognitive function proved similarly supportive of improved mood and reduced incidence or severity of depression.

In this article, you’ll discover why and how to apply what is probably the single most important nutritional therapy to reduce your risk of depression – or to alleviate a depression that has already settled over you.

The Scope and Severity of the Problem

A survey of Web users performed by data research firm comScore Networks estimated that in just three months alone, 33 million Internet surfers went to a site selling prescription medicine. Just under 3 million of those Web searchers were seeking information about depression – the most searches on any one condition. The other top searches were about bipolar disorder (1.8 million) and insomnia (1.7 million). Chances are good that those searchers were seriously considering a prescription medication by the time they walked away from their computers.

On the other hand, modern consumers are becoming increasingly skeptical about the safety of prescription drugs. This is due, in large part, to many recent front-page stories about drugs that were taken trustingly by millions of people – drugs that turned out to be much more dangerous than drug companies initially let on. A lot of these stories have been about the risks of psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants.

The World Health Organization has stated that depression is the leading cause of disability in America, and will be the 2nd leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020 (after heart disease). About 16 percent of Americans will, at some point in their lives, suffer a bout of depression; many millions are chronically afflicted. Some 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada are believed to suffer from depression.

Awareness of the problem of depression is at an all-time high, and people are less afraid of the diagnosis than ever before. Depression is no longer viewed as a sign of weakness or a flawed attitude. There’s no more stigma in a depression diagnosis and treatment than there is in being treated for a cough or arthritis, and the drugs most commonly used to treat it generally are effective – usually, after two or three tries at getting the right drug and the right dosage – to lift the funk and return the depressed person to the land of the living. Even mild depression, or cases of “the blues” that fall short of clinical depression, are often treated with antidepressants.

How The Diagnosis of Clinical Depression is Made

Depression is generally considered to be well beyond general sadness, “feeling blue” or “feeling down.” For a diagnosis of clinical depression, an individual must have:

  • Depressed mood or lack of ability to feel pleasure for two weeks or more

…in addition to several of the following symptoms:

  • Overwhelming sadness or fear, or numbness, emptiness, inability to feel emotion
  • Reduced interest or pleasure in all or almost all daily activities
  • Change in appetite – either decrease or increase – with weight loss or gain
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Physical restlessness or extreme lack of physical energy
  • Fatigue
  • Intense guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, anxiety, feelings of isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating, keeping focus, and making decisions
  • Slower thinking and reduced memory
  • Thoughts of death and suicide, or planning or attempt at suicide
  • Fear of or feelings of abandonment by loved ones

Also commonly reported: low self-esteem; self-loathing; noise sensitivity; and physical pain.
Keep in mind that a person who does not fit the diagnosis for clinical depression can still be diagnosed with milder forms of depression. These people are often prescribed antidepressants, but they can also benefit from the nutritional and lifestyle interventions described here and in the Brighter Mind book.

In recent years, however, some previously downplayed risks of these drugs have been revealed. These medicines are linked with increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions, particularly in children; they very commonly cause sexual dysfunction; and there is significant risk of a side effect known as akathisia, an unbearable restlessness that can drive people to violence against themselves or others. Withdrawal syndromes from the drugs can cause intense symptoms that make the user feel he or she can’t be without the meds. Almost all antidepressants reduce the amount of deep, rejuvenative REM sleep in those who take them. And in the end, the drugs are not a cure; they only work for as long as they’re given.

These drugs include SSRI (selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors) like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, and dopamine and norepinephrine-reuptake inhibitors (DRIs and NRIs), such as Lexapro, Effexor, Celexa, and Wellbutrin. They are widely prescribed for long-term use, despite the lack of knowledge about the long-term effects and risks of this kind of highly specific, artificial manipulation of neurotransmitter function. Strong evidence suggests that long-term use of these drugs could permanently alter the brain’s delicate mechanisms for keeping neurotransmitter production and activity in the proper balance. This is a particularly dangerous experiment in children, who – according to research evaluating psychiatric drug use in children – are being prescribed psychiatric medications at ages as young as 2!

Harvard psychiatrist Joseph Glenmullen, M.D., in his outstanding book Prozac Backlash, writes that

…[i]n recent years, the danger of long-term side effects has emerged in association with Prozac-type drugs, making it imperative to minimize one’s exposure to them. Neurological disorders including disfiguring facial and whole body tics, indicating potential brain damage, are an increasing concern with patients on the drugs. Withdrawal syndromes – which can be debilitating – are estimated to affect up to 50% of patients, depending on the particular drug. Sexual dysfunction affects 60% of people [on these medications]. Increasing reports are being made of people becoming dependent on the medications after chronic use. With related drugs targeting serotonin, there is evidence that they may affect a “chemical lobotomy” by destroying the nerve endings that they target in the brain…And startling new information on Prozac’s precipitating suicidal and violent behavior has come to light. (p. 8)

Do these sound like safe agents to which we can expose small children’s developing nervous systems?

Acceptance of the need for neurotransmitter-tweaking drugs arises from a theory that depression is caused by a specific “biochemical imbalance” that involves a lack of available, active serotonin and/or dopamine in the nervous system. Whether these low levels of neurotransmitter are a cause or an effect of depression – no one yet knows which way the causality runs – the underlying reality is this: that you can naturally “tweak” neurotransmitters and other aspects of brain activity with:

  • Appropriate diet and nutritional supplementation
  • Appropriate exercise
  • Appropriate thinking patterns (through therapy, spiritual practice, or specific mental exercises)

This approach, unlike drugs, is completely safe and 100 percent natural, even for the smallest children.

Another article, called “The Joy of Omega-3 Fats”, will tell you how you can use one specific aspect of diet to improve your mood and sense of well-being to a place where you can function and feel like yourself without the long-term use of neurotransmitter-altering drugs. In the Brighter Mind Book, I’ll continue to help you build your knowledge about how to battle depression (and other issues, including anxiety and attention-deficit disorder) naturally by telling you about additional nutritional changes, a well as physical and mental exercises that restore the right balance in the nervous system. The Brighter Mind Book comprehensively addresses the use of supplements, diet, and exercise for optimal function of the brain and nervous system.

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  1. Fantastic information. Thank you!

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