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Depression | Natural Treatments for Depression

Natural Treatments for Depression

Although most adults and children can experience a passing sense of “feeling blue” from time to time, chronic depression can stop a person from living a normal life. People who are depressed cannot just “snap out of it.” This illness interferes with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities and can devastate the lives of concerned family and friends. Depression affects up to 9.5 percent of the U.S. population. Fortunately, depression is a treatable illness and natural modalities such as naturopathic medicine and Chinese medicine can play important roles in the healing process.

Children, like adults, also experience depression: 2.5 percent of children and up to 8.3 percent of adolescents suffer with the illness. Only recently has the medical community recognized the need to learn more about a child’s symptoms and various treatment methods. The depressed child may fake sickness, refuse to go to school, be clingy or worry that the parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble, be negative, grouchy and feel misunderstood. According to Dr. Wendy Weber, clinical faculty member at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, and principal investigator on a study of St. John’s Wort for Juvenile Depression, “the child may seem withdrawn or less interested in activities that used to be enjoyable. Parents may notice sleeping problems or a weight change. Any talk about death or thinking that things would be better if they were not here is a definite red flag.” Because normal behaviors vary from one childhood stage to another, it can be difficult to tell whether a child is just going through a temporary "phase" or is suffering from depression. Dr. Weber states that “The important thing is for parents to recognize what the symptoms are and to seek out treatment for their child.”

What causes depression?

Although many people experience depression, naturopathic physicians believe the causes are unique to each individual and that it is important to treat the person and not just the disease. Naturopathic physicians will sit down with a patient to learn in detail how this condition started and what the person experiences. Life events such as a family death, relationship issues, or stressful conditions can trigger depressive symptoms. Environmental toxicities and nutrient deficiencies such as B vitamins and folic acid, fatty acids, and/or specific amino acids can also cause symptoms. Underlying physical problems such as thyroid conditions, anemia, or hormonal imbalances can significantly alter a person’s mood. These can be diagnosed by physical evaluation, proper laboratory tests and a complete patient history.

Treatments for depression

Naturopathic physicians have found that optimizing basic health factors such as sleep, diet and exercise can often prevent or significantly minimize the tendency towards depression. Carefully choosing an approach that can help uncover and treat psychological factors such as biofeedback, talk therapies, or energetic medicines along with patient-specific changes in lifestyle and specific nutritive and botanical medicines can often resolve symptoms without antidepressant medications. Therapies for children may include diet changes, including supplementing with fatty acids, nutrients, botanicals and homeopathy.

Naturopathic approaches may also be used in conjunction with a conventional medical doctor’s antidepressant medications. Although these medications are known to commonly have side effects, there are important instances where antidepressants can prevent suicide attempts or help a person function so they are able to care for children or work to support a family. It is important that once a patient begins antidepressant medications, he or she should not stop taking these without consulting their doctor for instructions on how to discontinue safely. Additionally, it is important that they check with their naturopathic physician regarding the use of any supplement or herbs for these may interact with their medications.

Traditional Chinese medicine has been used for over two thousand years to treat emotional conditions and is quite effective for depression. Chinese medicine philosophy views the shen or “spirit” as being intimately related with the movement of qi or vital energy in the body. Various patterns of depression for different people may be related to the Chinese perspective of organs such as the heart, which energetically affects emotions. Also important is the way our body regulates nourishment, for a depressed mood can adversely affect the stomach and spleen, which will decrease the nourishment of our bodies and mind, thus causing further disturbance. Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and food choices according to the Chinese tradition can help restore balance and replenish our bodies to regain normal mood patterns.

Symptoms of juvenile depression may include:

  • At least 2 weeks of feeling depressed or down nearly every day
  • Or 2 weeks of being less interested in activities with symptoms of increased or decreased appetite
  • Sleep disturbance (too much or too little)
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness or moving more slowly
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Depression is a multi-faceted illness affecting both adults and children alike. This condition is well-treated using naturopathic and Chinese medicine. Natural medicine practitioners define specific causes for childhood and adult mood disturbances, and treat these accordingly by addressing the cause, restoring optimal health balance, and complementing drug therapy when necessary.

Writer: Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc
Date: 2003


Birmaher B, et al. Childhood and adolescent depression: a review of the past 10 years. Part I. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1996; 35(11): 1427-39

Hazel P. Depression in Children and Adolescents. American Family Physician, Vol 67, Number 3, 2003, pp.577-579.

Maccioca G. Practice and Principles of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingtone Inc. New York, NY. 1994.

Murray M. and Pizzorno J. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd Edition. Prima Publishing. Rockland, CA. 1998.

Strock, M. National Institute of Mental Health: Plain Talk on Depression. NIH Publication No. 00-3561. Printed 2000. Updated: August 07, 2003.

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The health information contained in this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be considered a substitute for appropriate medical care. Any products mentioned in studies cited in Healthnotes articles are not necessarily endorsed by Bastyr. As with any product, consult with a natural health practitioner to discuss what may be best for you.


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