Meditation, dietary supplements, and other alternative depression treatments are not substitutes for medication or psychotherapy, but they can have some benefits.
Most mental health experts agree that the best “natural treatment” for depression is talking. Types of talk therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy.
As a group, these forms of therapy for depression are called psychotherapy. Other types of natural treatments for depression that are frequently used include dietary supplements, exercise, meditation, and acupuncture.
Psychotherapy, with or without medication, is the best way to treat depression,” advises Richard Shadick, PhD, director of the counseling center and adjunct professor of psychology at Pace University in New York City. However, he adds, “There are some alternative treatments that can help mild to moderate depression.
Natural Treatments for Depression: Exercise
Exercise, if done correctly, is one of the most promising natural treatments for depression. It elevates mood quickly and reliably. It is believed that this takes place because exercise affects the same neurotransmitter system that medication does, says Dr. Shadick.
A recent review of all the available controlled trials that compared exercise with either no treatment or another type of established treatment in people diagnosed with depression concluded that exercise does relieve symptoms of depression.
But how effective and which type of exercise is best remain to be seen.
Many studies, going back to 1981, support the use of exercise as part of a treatment plan for mild to moderate depression. Most experts suggest about 30 to 60 minutes a day of moderate exercise to lift your mood.
Natural Treatments for Depression: Meditation and Yoga
Meditation and yoga have been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, which can contribute to depression, says Shadick. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation have all been used to relieve symptoms of depression and reduce stress.
These mind-body techniques can promote feelings of joy and well-being.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditation studies at the University of Massachusetts have shown that practicing meditation to lower stress can improve mood and relieve negative feelings of depression such as anxiety and anger.
Using these same meditation practices, called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, several studies have found that meditation can reduce the risk for a recurrence of major depression.
Natural Treatments for Depression: Dietary Supplements
Many people use herbs or dietary supplements as natural treatments for depression. It is important to remember that some of these supplements can have side effects or can interfere with other medications.
St. John’s wort is an extract from a wild-growing shrub and has been used as an herbal medicine for hundreds of years. It is used in Europe to treat mild depression. In the United States, St. John’s wort is a popular-selling product, but its effectiveness for depression is not proven. Some studies suggest it may help for minor depression, but it did not fare better than a placebo for major depression.
SAMe (S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine) is a synthetic supplement that is made from naturally occurring proteins in the body. It has been used to treat depression as well as osteoarthritis and liver disease. A review by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found 47 studies in which SAMe was used for depression and concluded that SAMe worked better than a placebo.
Natural Treatments for Depression: Acupuncture
Acupuncture is increasingly being used as a natural treatment for depression. One area where acupuncture has been studied for depression is in depression associated with pregnancy. Because of potential side effects of drug treatment in women who are pregnant, acupuncture would be a valuable alternative.
In a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, 61 pregnant women with major depression were treated with acupuncture specifically tailored to treat depression, general acupuncture that didn’t target depression, or with massage therapy.
The women who were treated with acupuncture specifically targeting depression had a response rate of 69 percent. In comparison, the response rates were lower for those who received general acupuncture (47 percent) or massage therapy (32 percent).
If you have depression, work with your doctor to find the best treatment. If you decide to try natural treatments for depression, let your doctor know. Remember, some of the most effective ways you can help your depression besides taking medication include eating well, getting enough sleep, avoiding stress, and having a good support system.