When it comes to medicating our moods, the U.S. eclipses every other country in the world – we are the clear “gold medal” winners, with over $22 billion in annual sales of medications prescribed for depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social phobias or other mood swings. While the U.S. surpasses Japan by about 2 to 1 in total prescription drug use, it’s 8 to 1 when it comes to mood-altering drugs. Americans are either the most depressed and anxious people on earth, or at least the most likely to medicate our moods.
Why are so many Americans taking mood-altering drugs? I believe there are four main reasons:
· The pharmaceutical companies heavily market these drugs. Just five of the antidepressant drugs, Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Wellbutrin, and Effexor accounted for nearly $8 billion in sales alone in 2000, over one-third of all of the psychoactive medications prescribed. And these drugs are not cheap – they average about $2.50 per pill, or about $75 per month of therapy. In order to expand the markets for these expensive drugs the pharmaceutical companies have created new “indications” for doctors to prescribe them. Not only are doctors are encouraged to prescribe mood-altering drugs for newly named disorders such as “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMS), “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (winter blues), or “Social anxiety disorder” (shyness), but pharmaceutical companies now market directly to consumers with “Ask your doctor” ads on television. Intensive marketing by drug companies has led to explosive growth in this market segment.
· Our culture is creating more mood disorders. The average stress level of Americans today is tremendous. We live in a high speed, high tech world in which we are constantly bombarded with external pressures to produce, to succeed, to win, to work harder, longer, faster and better. Our personal relationships are increasingly strained by these external stresses in our lives accompanied by the erosion of our support systems – our family and community structure, which themselves have become severely strained. These increased pressures and lack of adequate support systems leave millions of Americans with feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, hopelessness and despair that cause great uneasiness.
· Our medical system promotes and encourages the use of prescription drugs to treat mood problems. Because of the time and financial pressures that face most doctors in private practice, more doctors are apt to prescribe medications than to encourage alternate therapies that may also be effective. It takes less time to prescribe a pill than to provide counseling, recommend dietary changes, arrange referrals for behavioral therapy, or to help a patient make lasting lifestyle changes. Patients themselves are often looking for a quick and easy “fix” – most would rather take a pill than change their diet, exercise regularly, practice a relaxation technique or lose weight.
· Many of the mood-altering drugs are highly effective for mood disorders.
But at what price?
Regular use of the anti-anxiety medications leads to the cycle of habituation, tolerance, dependency and addiction. Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs for anxiety such as Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin are also among the most addictive drugs available by prescription.
Antidepressants commonly cause sexual dysfunction and loss of sexual desire, and may cause a number of side effects including weight gain, drowsiness, sweating, or gastrointestinal symptoms. Many people find that getting off of these medications much more difficult than getting on them, with symptoms of depression or anxiety often reoccurring. This is of some concern, since the long-term effects of these medications are simply unknown.
But please don’t get us wrong. These drugs can often be lifesaving. For many people with severe symptoms or serious clinical depression or disabling anxiety these drugs can be miraculous. But for people who are motivated and interested in alternate approaches to manage their moods without pills, there are more options.
For those people, I would recommend the following steps to help gain control of mood disorders:
· Exercise – Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to raise levels of serotonin in the brain, the same chemical affected by modern antidepressant medications. Regular exercise also helps to lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol, two important hormones related to stress and anxiety.
· Get out of your cave – spending too much time indoors, under artificial lights and staring at a television has a direct effect on our brain. The pineal gland, which sits in the center of our brain and produces the hormone melatonin is highly sensitive to light waves. To help restore normal hormonal balance in the brain, as well as regular sleep-wake cycles it’s important to get out in the sunshine during the day and to keep the lights out in your bedroom at night while you sleep.
· Avoid stimulants – This includes coffee, nicotine, and alcohol. These stimulants create hormonal chaos in your body and ultimately deprive your brain of the important hormones that stabilize mood and control anxiety. While these drugs may temporarily produce a “feel-good” effect, the rebound effect from withdrawal and the after-effects deplete our reserves of critical hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain.) Long-term use of these drugs leads to dependency and addiction.
· Get some counseling – Ask someone with an objective perspective for assistance. A counselor, therapist, a close friend or “life coach” may be helpful in putting things in perspective. Because mood disorders are like looking at the world through tinted glasses, an objective view from someone you trust can help you to see more clearly.
· Increase your intake of important foods and nutrients;
o FISH – Fish oils have a stabilizing effect on moods. Studies using supplemental fish oils have shown success in treating depression without prescription medications. Healthy fish to increase in your diet include salmon, trout, sardines, arctic char, mackerel, herring, and sole. If you don’t care for fish, then fish oil supplements called EPA/DHA are available in most health food stores. I’d recommend 1000 – 3000 mg per day. (Kay’s note: Find a reputable molecular distilled fish oil that’s free of mercury, PCBs and lead.)
o B complex vitamins – B complex vitamins including B12, B6, and folic acid are important in the production of serotonin in the brain. These B vitamins can be taken as a supplement, but are also found in foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, eggs, fish, poultry.
o Magnesium – Magnesium is also essential for mood stabilization. I would recommend 350-500 mg of magnesium daily. Foods rich in magnesium include nuts, and dark green leafy vegetables. If you don’t care for any of these foods, magnesium supplements, such as magnesium glycinate are available.
o FIBER – Increasing your intake of fiber helps your body to process and maintain stable hormone levels. Good sources of fiber include fruits & vegetables, nuts & seeds, and white beans.
o Reduce your intake of sugars – Although sweets, and carbs can provide a temporary “feel good” effect, they cause swings in the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain that are unstable. A rule of thumb is to reserve carbs and small amounts of sweets for after dinner only – these foods transiently boost serotonin levels, which may help with getting to sleep, so they’re best avoided until evening.
Finally, if you have tried these natural approaches and are still not having success, don’t be dismayed – it’s ok if someone needs a medication; they can often make a big difference. Like all things in life, moods change, so keep up with these healthy habits – they will improve the effectiveness of any other treatment you may be receiving.
(Article revised to be SCD food compliant)
Kay’s Note: Depression often lessens or disappears after following the SCD religiously for a period of time and healing has taken place and pain has subsided.