Antidepressant Alternatives

Depression and anxiety are commonly misunderstood to be mental-health disorders when in fact they could be symptoms of imbalances within the body. Recent medical research (see Sources & References below) is showing time and time again that they are whole-body disorders, as are other neurological conditions such as autism and ADHD. If this is the case, then bringing the body back into balance can affect the health of the brain.

Antidepressant Side Effects

Most people think that the only thing to do for depression and anxiety is to take an antidepressant. However, doing so is not without risks, as side effects from taking antidepressants may range from none to mild to severe. They include:

In 2004, the U.S. FDA placed a black-box warning on antidepressants about the significantly increased risk of suicidal thinking, feeling, and behavior in children under the age of 18. If these medications aren’t a good idea for children, here are some ideas for alternative ways of addressing your child’s anxiety or depression. We recommend that you work with a healthcare practitioner who can monitor the implementation and progress of these interventions.

Antidepressant Alternatives

When you start to think of depression and anxiety as whole-body disorders instead of brain-only disorders, your perspective shifts. Instead of limiting your choices to different antidpressant medications, your options for improving your body’s and thus your brain’s function improves dramatically.

If your child is currently taking an antidepressant, it is important to work with a doctor to wean him or her off of the medication, if that’s what you wish to do. We recommend that you work with a holistic psychiatrist or functional-medicine doctor to do so.

Lower Inflammation

Depression and anxiety are now being understood as symptoms of a body that is out of balance, especially in the case of excess inflammation. In fact, one of the reasons why antidepressants work is that they are anti-inflammatory.

While NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen are by definition anti-inflammatory, there are other options such as vitamin C, CBD and omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA. You can find more ideas for other ways to lower inflammation here.

Heal the Gut

It is becoming more well known these days about the link between the health of the brain and the health of the gut, which is sometimes called the second brain. Inflammation in the gut from hidden food sensitivities may be contributing to symptoms, and an elimination diet can be implemented to see if this is the case. In addition, cleaning up the diet can remove other common sources of inlammation such as artificial colors, flavorings and preservatives.

By implementing a gut-healing diet such as the GAPS diet, Paleo diet or Body Ecology Diet, the intestinal microbiome may be able to better fight off pathogens and to better produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin. 

Consider Supplementing with 5-HTP

Holistic psychiatrists and functional-medicine doctors will often wean their patients off of anti-depressants while gradually adding in increasing amounts of 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is the precursor to serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter. Be sure to work with a knowledgeable doctor if you try this approach.

Exercise

There are thousands of peer-reviewed medical research studies that show that exercise can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are multiple mechanisms for this, one of which is the well-known benefit of the release of endorphins, which are hormones that are responsible for the “runner’s high”.

Exercise also reduces levels of glucose – a sugar – in the blood. Sugar is inflammatory and can therefore contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Poor sleep is highly associated with depression and other psychiatric disorders. It is also “an independent risk factor for suicidality and substance use in adolescents“. The use of social media at night has been implicated in poor sleep quality, although it is not the only potential cause. Obstructive Sleep Apnea could also be contributing to depression and anxiety, especially if your child snores or is a mouth breather.

Reduce Blue Light at Night

Most TVs, smartphones, computer monitors and smartpads use LED (light-emitting diodes), which produces a high amount of light in the blue range of visible light. Blue light inhibits the production of melatonin, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone that encourages sleep.

Get out in the Sunshine

Although blue light at night inhibits quality sleep, it is important to get plenty of it during daylight hours in the form of sunshine. Doing so can stave off symptoms of depression and anxiety. Light therapy has been used for years to counteract Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which occurs during months of less sunshine for those that live further from the earth’s equator.

The amount of serotonin produced is directly correlated with the amount of sunlight exposure, so be sure to get your child outside in the sun every day, especially in the winter months.

Consider Supplementing with Vitamin D

Vitamin D, known as the “sunshine vitamin”, is produced when sunshine activates cholesterol in the skin. A deficiency of it is a contributing factor for depression. Ask your doctor to order 25-hydroxy test, which measures the amount of vitamin D in the blood. Although most practitioners will simply look at the test results and say that a level of 30 ng/dL is a “normal” level, “normal” is not the same as “optimal”. Functional-medicine doctors are more likely to say that levels of 80-100 ng/dL are needed for optimal health.

Vitamin D is a common supplement but be sure that it is in the form of D3; D2 is the form most often form found in foods. In addition, taking it with vitamin K2 increases its effectiveness. Both D2 and K2 are fat-soluble vitamins and are commonly found in animal fat but not plant fat. A person following a vegan diet is much more likely to be deficient in these immune-boosting vitamins and may thus be more prone to immune-system problems and depression.

Reset Your Circadian Clock

A person with a circadian rhythm that is not in sync with the sun is more likely to have depression. The information above about sunlight and blue light can be used to conclude that getting up around sunrise and going to bed not too many hours after sunset is best for optimal health. Ben Franklin was correct when he wrote that “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

It should also be noted that going against this synchronized circadian rhythm increases cortisol when a person gets a “second wind” and stays up past the bedtime of 11:00pm for an adult. Bedtime should be much earlier for a child; the younger the child, the earlier the bedtime. This cortisol release interferes with melatonin production and causes a blood-sugar spike. The combination of increased inflammatory blood sugar with lower amounts of anti-inflammatory melatonin means that a person who stays up late chronically is more likely to have a chronic health condition. Indeed, a systematic review of nurses found that they have a significant risk of breast cancer if they work the night shift for prolonged periods.

Test for the Presence of Chronic Infections Such as Lyme, Lyme Coinfections and/or Strep

Your child’s mood and behavioral issues could be the result of chronic Lyme and/or PANS/PANDAS, which means that pathogens and/or toxins have crossed the blood-brain barrier to cause obsessive compulsive (OCD) behaviors, anxiety, depression and other “psychiatric” symptoms. It’s best to work with a Lyme-literate or PANS/PANDAS practitioner who knows how to test and treat these conditions correctly; you can find many of them in our practitioner directory.

Work with a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT)

Talking about problems with a qualified therapist can significantly reduce symptoms of depression. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists often teach their clients a “toolbox” of methods and coping strategies to reframe personal challenges in order to improve emotional regulation.

Work with a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Practitioner

Transcranial Magentic Stimulation is a technology that uses special magnets to normalize neural activity. It is an FDA-approved for depression, and there is an increasing number of clinics who use it. This non-invasive treatment has been around for decades, and there are many research articles that document its benefits, especially for depression.

Consider Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback therapy trains the brain to create new neural pathways to reduce brain wave combinations that produce anxiety, depression and other symptoms. It is sometimes covered by health insurance policies in the United States, and it is worth checking into.

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Resources
Articles

Evolutionary Psychology: Inflammation and Depression: Cause or Effect.

Harvard Medical School: Shining a light on winter depression.

Harvard Medical School: What are the real risks of antidepressants?

New Scientist: Anti-inflammatory drugs can relieve symptoms of depression.

New Scientist: An inflamed brain may be a hidden cause of depression.

Time: Why Sunlight Is So Good for You.

Books

Bock, Kenneth. Brain Inflamed: Uncovering the Hidden Causes of Anxiety, Depression, and Other Mood Disorders in Adolescents and Teens. Harper Wave, 2021.

Brogan, Kelly. A Mind of Your Own. The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives. New York, Harper, 2016.

Campbell-McBride, Natasha. Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia. 2010.

Greenblatt, James M. Integrative Medicine for Depression: A Breakthrough Treatment Plan that Eliminates Depression Naturally. 2019, FriesenPress.

Greenblatt, James M. (ed.) and Brogan, Kelly (ed). Integrative Therapies for Depression: Redefining Models for Assessment, Treatment and Prevention. 2015, CRC Press.

Greenblatt, James M. and Grossman, Kayla. Nutritional Lithium: A Cinderella Story: The Untold Tale of a Mineral That Transforms Lives and Heals the Brain. 2016, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Guyol, G. Who’s Crazy Here?: Steps for Recovery Without Drugs for ADD/ADHD, Addiction & Eating Disorders, Anxiety & PTSD, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Autism. 1st U.S. ed. Stonington, CT: Ajoite Pub.; 2010.

Hyman, Mark. The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First: The Simple Way to Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety and Sharpen Your Mind. 1st Scribner hardcover ed. New York: Scribner; 2008.

Lambert, Beth, et al. Brain Under Attack: A Resource for Parents and Caregivers of Children with PANS, PANDAS, and Autoimmune Encephalitis. 2018, Answers Publications.

Ross, Julia. The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions–Today. 2003, PenguinLife.