Increase Your Happiness without Antidepressant Medications

Natural options may help ease depression without side effects.

Eleven percent of Americans aged 12 years and older take antidepressant medications, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Most of these antidepressants, including a widely used class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are designed to reduce anxiety and lift mood by prolonging the effects of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in the functioning of the body’s hormone system and the brain’s communications network.

But SSRIs and other drugs that affect brain serotonin levels can cause a number of disturbing side effects, including gastrointestinal bleeding, insomnia, headache, diminished sex drive, weight gain, and increased risk for suicide. A study published in the Oct. 17, 2012 edition of Neurology suggests that SSRIs may also increase risk for bleeding in or around the brain in certain individuals. In light of these serious side effects, it’s important to know that there are natural strategies for preventing or treating mild depression or anxiety.

Natural Mood Boosters

“For many people, use of antidepressant medications may help improve mood and protect against the onset of more serious mental disorders,” says Albert S. Yeung, MD, Director of Primary Care Research at MGH’s Clinical and Research Program and co-author of a 2011 book on depression entitled Self-Management of Depression. “However, medications are not the only option for raising serotonin levels. There are many things people can do to live happier lives or to manage their depression.”

Certain health conditions, such as thyroid problems or gastrointestinal disorders, may contribute to a reduction in overall serotonin levels, and these require medical management. However, research and clinical observation suggest that lifestyle factors, too, may affect levels of serotonin in the brain. You may be able to address these lifestyle factors on your own, making antidepressant therapy unnecessary. However, it’s always best to check with a doctor before taking supplements or making radical changes in your lifestyle.

Among the natural factors linked to improved mood are:

Regular exercise: A large body of research has established that regular exercise—30 minutes a day, five days a week or more—can improve mood. Some studies suggest that exercise increases the synthesis of serotonin in the brain and boosts brain levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is the source material for the production of serotonin.

A proper diet: Consume a diet that includes foods that provide the serotonin precursor tryptophan, such as whole grains and sweet potatoes, squash, avocados, bananas, and other healthy carbohydrates. Carbs work best when combined with protein foods that themselves contain tryptophan, such as turkey, chicken, pork, and lamb, and foods containing balanced fats such as fatty fish, eggs, and low-fat milk and cheeses, which also raise serotonin levels.

Exposure to sunlight: Bright light has been shown to counteract depression associated with reduced exposure to sunlight during the short days of winter, and some studies have shown that light therapy can improve non-seasonal depression as well. (See page 4). Try to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight daily. More is even better.

Supplements: A number of supplements are thought to boost serotonin levels. These include the nutritional supplement 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), which acts as a precursor to serotonin, and L-tryptophan, which also is a precursor to serotonin. Both may have side effects, and are best taken under a doctor’s supervision. There is some evidence that fish oil supplements containing the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are important to serotonin metabolism.

Healthful sleep: Since irregular sleep schedules can disrupt serotonin production, getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night is a great way to prevent depression.

Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on a person’s patterns of behavior and thinking, with the goal of replacing those patterns that may be  causing troublesome outcomes with thoughts and behaviors that are more adaptive. Psychotherapy that creates positive changes in thoughts and attitudes has been found to be effective in alleviating depression.

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