9 Things To Try Before You Consider An Antidepressant

Functional Medicine Practitioner By William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional medicine expert who specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Cole is also the bestselling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.

Photo by Marija Savic

Depression is the leading cause of disability and affects more than 300 million people across the globe. Your brain relies on a proper balance of chemicals to regulate your mood, specifically serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Serotonin plays the biggest role in moderating your mood, norepinephrine helps us deal with stress, and dopamine acts as our pleasure chemical, giving us the ability to enjoy various situations and events.

Pharmaceuticals can be extremely helpful—even lifesaving—in addressing depression, but when used chronically, they often treat the symptoms of an illness instead of the root cause. And antidepressants, in particular, come with a long list of potential side effects including weight gain, fatigue, decreased sex drive, and even suicidal thoughts if not monitored correctly.

Most antidepressants target serotonin, designed to help increase serotonin levels, which are believed to be low in depression. Thankfully, there are a lot of natural ways to increase these invaluable neurotransmitters. We can also begin to treat the underlying factors causing these neurotransmitters to be low in the first place along with other contributors to poor brain health.

1. Support your "second brain."

The health of your brain is directly correlated to the health of your gut. These two systems are forever connected through the gut-brain axis with the proteins occludin and zonulin controlling the permeability of your gut lining and blood-brain barrier. When your gut and brain are compromised, your immune system works in overdrive, creating a cascade of chronic inflammation.

Imbalances of bacteria, specifically Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, in the microbiome have been linked to increased incidences of depression. Try adding a probiotic into your daily regimen containing these two strains.

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2. Go keto.

The ketogenic diet is one of the newest hot topics in the wellness world. This diet focuses on high-fat intake, moderate protein, and minimal carbohydrates, which will turn your body into a fat burner rather than a sugar burner by relying on fat for energy. Since 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat, it makes sense that you would want to feed your brain exactly what it is made of rather than deprive it.

Studies have shown that the ketogenic diet can stabilize mood and have a similar effect to antidepressants. So even if you don’t go full-blown keto, take a cue from the Mediterranean diet, one filled with healthy fats, and up your intake of things such as wild-caught fish. It’s no surprise that people who implement this kind of diet end up seeing a significant decrease in symptoms.

3. Try intermittent fasting.

Since depression is considered a neuroinflammatory condition, studies have shown that reducing inflammation through fasting can have an effect similar to that of an antidepressant to boost your mood.

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4. Elevate those neurotransmitter levels.

Engaging in certain activities naturally boosts these feel-good chemicals. Physical activity is not only good for your overall health; it produces a rush of endorphins. Ever heard of runners' high? Yep, there’s a reason why you feel elated even after a knock-you-down workout. Hack your way to happiness by participating in other activities such as listening to your favorite music, learning a new skill, or one of my other favorite options.

5. Practice hygge.

Stress is a major component of a lot of health problems, depression included. In my functional medicine clinic, it’s not hard to see the correlation between a time of heightened stress and the onset of chronic symptoms. Stress puts your brain into overdrive by constantly ordering your adrenal glands to release cortisol and adrenaline. This is a normal response, but without a break it can actually change the function of your brain, create a cascade of inflammation, and contribute to depression. Stress can come from anywhere: busy schedules, toxic relationships, or even an overload of technology. Indulge in some Danish-inspired hygge and set time aside to pause, practice self-care, and hit refresh.

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6. Correct nutrient deficiencies.

Your body is a complex system that relies on a balance of nutrients in order to run properly. One of the most common associations we see is a lack of B vitamins and increased symptoms of depression. Methylation, your body’s biochemical superhighway, is responsible for helping to produce your happy neurotransmitters, and B vitamins are necessary for this process to occur. In fact, low folate levels can actually inhibit the effectiveness of antidepressants.

7. Experiment with light therapy.

Ever wonder why your mood tends to drop in the winter? You have a lack of sunshine to thank for that. Sunshine boosts serotonin and vitamin D levels, which decrease in the dark winter months. With the sun being the most bioavailable form of vitamin D, make sure to take advantage of cold sunny winter days. Bundle up and take a walk! If that's just not an option (or makes you cringe), light therapy boxes are designed to mimic the sun and can significantly reduce depression symptoms.

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8. Talk it out.

Originally developed to specifically treat depression, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) focuses on improving negative emotions by working to change destructive thoughts and behaviors through creating personal coping strategies for each individual. Overall, this has been shown to be one of the most effective types of therapy when it comes to depression and can be just as powerful as medication in many instances,

9. Supplement with St. John's wort.

This herb has been used for thousands of years and is currently particularly popular in Germany, with St. John’s wort more widely used and recommended than Prozac and other antidepressants by doctors. While more research is needed to determine its effectiveness, long-term studies are supporting this herb's powerful mood-regulating abilities.

Know someone struggling with depression? Here's what NOT to say to them.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
William Cole, D.C., IFMCP
Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, is a leading functional-medicine expert and a Doctor of Chiropractic. He...
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