Are there alternatives to drugs?

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By Miriam Hawkins and Angela Bischoff

Health is not merely the absence of disease but a state of well-being in which the mind, body and spirit are balanced.

There’s much we can do without drugs to treat depression and anxiety, especially of the moderate sort, where it all starts. There’s no quick fix, but we can use a variety of effective alternate approaches to build sound mental health, approaches that cause no harmful side effects and are more likely to get at the root cause of the depression or anxiety.

Family and community

Human interactions and relationships are at the core of good mental health care. At times we need to talk, cry, find ways to laugh and play, or ask friends and family for encouragement. We’re all vulnerable, and we all need support at different times. Reach out. Be generous.

Meaningful work

Doing something you believe in can give meaning to everyday life. Working to change social, economic or other injustice, from expensive daycare to workplace racism to saving trees, can give life purpose and passion. Getting paid is important, but volunteer work also reaps enormous reward.

Talk therapy

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” has proven an effective alternative to drugs and teaches life-long coping skills. Patients treated with psychotherapy have fewer relapses than those treated with antidepressants. Find a therapist you respect, and who respects you.

Exercise

Our bodies are designed to move. Evidence shows regular physical activity is the best long-term treatment for depression and anxiety. Movement is how our bodies circulate lymph to carry away toxins. It focuses and calms the mind, burns fat and excess energy, aids digestion and circulation, tones muscles, strengthens bone, improves heart and lung function, gets endorphins flowing and, best of all, makes you feel good.

Diet

Changes in diet over the past 50 years are an important factor in the rise in mental illness. The UK Mental Health Foundation cites scientific studies clearly linking attention deficit disorder, depression, Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia to junk food and the absence of essential fats, vitamins and minerals in industrialized diets.

Many people have hidden allergies, especially to milk, wheat and corn. Try switching to alternatives, or get tested. Sometimes what you crave is what you’re allergic to.

Eat like your body is a temple of the spirit. Eat more organic, raw, low on the food chain and as unprocessed as possible: more fruits and veggies and less refined foods. Turns out, when fruits and veggies comprise the majority of our diet, they create an optimal, energetic blood acid-alkaline balance. Research shows this is the right biochemical state for our cells to create 16 times more net energy from each calorie than when we eat a typical North American diet dominated by acid-forming foods (non- fruits and veggies). With all that freed-up metabolic energy, you feel less tired and can cope better. You can do more and eat less.

Grains, seeds, legumes and nuts are nutritional powerhouses, supplying proteins, fatty acids and B-vitamins crucial to the nervous system. Many foods have unique properties needed by the brain: oatmeal, a rare but essential amino acid; apples, the trace mineral boron; herbs and spices, aromatic oils that help protect brain cells. Eating a variety ensures you cover the bases. Learn to cook for yourself as healthily as you can.

Nutrients for the brain

Researchers have noted the mental, physical and emotional effects of stress and adrenal “burnout.” Many individuals suffer greatly from depleted hormonal and nutritional reserves, artificially stimulating the nervous system and destroying vitamins with caffeine, sugar and medications until they rollercoaster into systemic breakdown, manifesting in a myriad of symptoms.

Medications act strongly on hormone systems and can easily damage delicate glands and organs. In many cases of depression, diagnoses miss both systemic deficiencies and increasingly common thyroid conditions (brought on by stress, lifestyle, medications, pollution, etc.).

Stressful, toxic environments and poor diets create an increasingly greater demand for essential nutrients to restore and replenish overworked and damaged organ systems. The nervous system is especially dependent on the B vitamins. Stress, caffeine, sugar, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol destroy B-complex and C vitamins. A high-dose, natural-source B-complex supplement should provide noticeable relief, but the coffee, tea or other chronic source of depletion has to be cut back. Eat C-rich fruits, cabbage, greens, peppers to protect cellular walls.

The brain and nervous system are high in fat as well as protein, and should stay that way for optimal health with essential fatty and amino acids from seeds, nuts, whole grains, legumes, avocados, olives, greens and even berries, as well as organic eggs and cheese. Essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 (rich in hemp, flax and fish oils) can improve the behaviour of rowdy kids and help language skills, English researchers have found. Many toxins are fat-soluble and healthy dietary fats help to flush them.

Societal changes

Societal change may be beyond our capacity as individuals, but people can—and do—work together to create social change. Depression may be a normal reaction to a life without adequate support: reach out for help.

Balance

Always make time for fun, friends, art, reading, dance, music, meditation, prayer, nature, journaling, yoga, sport—whatever it is that brings you peace and joy. These will strengthen your spirit and give your life balance and resiliency. Remaining engaged, whether in solo activity or community, is fundamental for sound mental health.

There are many other systems worth trying that have helped countless people suffering with depression—clinical nutritional therapy or orthomolecular medicine, naturopathy, acupuncture, massage, laughter therapy, therapeutic touch. But in the end, it all comes down to self-awareness. Notice what the therapy is doing for you and to you. Are the side effects worth it? Are you feeling better or worse?

The road to recovery may be short for some, or a life-long process for others. A variety of therapeutic approaches are often required to provide a comprehensive route to recovery. The process of healing is individual.

But don’t walk this journey alone. Confide in someone every step of the way to be sure you don’t fall off the rails. Remember—it’s all about growth. Embrace it. You’re worth it!

This article was adapted from the original, which was published in Depression Expression, a newsletter published in 2006 by Health Mind, Body, Planet and available on the Greenspiration website: www.greenspiration.org

Miriam Hawkins is a health and environmental activist and communications consultant living in Toronto. Angela Bischoff is a long-time environmental and health activist now working on anti-nuclear power issues in Ontario.