At the end of 2013, there was much buzz about new studies showing that curing insomnia in people with depression might double the chance of a complete recovery from depression. The studies, financed by the National Institute of Mental Health, were welcomed as the most significant advance in treating depression since the introduction of the “selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor” (SSRI), Prozac, twenty-five years ago. In effect, the new research findings turn conventional wisdom on its head, since they suggest that insomnia can be a main cause of depression, rather than just a symptom or a side effect, as previously assumed. If you can successfully treat a depressed person’s insomnia, according to the new view, you eliminate one of the main factors causing the depressed state.
New research findings turn conventional wisdom on its head
suggesting that insomnia can be a main cause of depression
rather than just a symptom or a side effect as previously assumed
As we followed reports on this breakthrough research on insomnia and depression, we were especially encouraged to read comments like the one from Washington DC psychiatrist James Gordon, who has advocated an integrative approach to treating depression. Here’s his letter to The New York Times:
I welcome a new report’s finding that cognitive behavioral therapy is improving the outcome for depressed people with significant insomnia (“Sleep Therapy Seen as an Aid for Depression,” front page, Nov. 19).
It reminds us that changes in attitude and perspective, and a therapeutic relationship, can right biological imbalances — like disordered sleep — and significantly enhance the lives of troubled people. The study also puts the therapeutic role of antidepressant medication in perspective: the depressed participants who received behavioral therapy did equally well whether or not they were taking the drugs.
I hope that these results will encourage the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers, clinicians and all of us to expand our horizons.
There are a number of other nonpharmacological therapies, including meditation, physical exercise, dietary change and nutritional supplementation, acupuncture and group support, that show promise for improving clinical depression and enhancing brain function.
At NYBC we have long believed that non-prescription therapies, such as supplements, are valuable alternatives for treating mood disorders and sleep disorders When the Centers for Disease Control surveyed use of antidepressant drugs in 2008, it found that one in 10 Americans was taking an antidepressant, and many had taken these drugs for years. Over a period of ten years, antidepressant use in the U.S. had shot up by 400%! So the question arises: how much of this spectacular increase represented real gains in treatment, and how much was over-prescribing? As Dr. Gordon mentions in his letter above, in some cases behavioral therapy for depression has worked just as well whether people were taking antidepressants or not—hardly a strong argument for the value of the prescription drugs.
A well-publicized 2008 report in the New England Journal of Medicine
found that pharmaceutical companies had consistently reported
only the most favorable trial outcomes for their popular antidepressants
A well-publicized 2008 report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that pharmaceutical companies had consistently reported only the most favorable trial outcomes for their popular antidepressants, passing over evidence that suggested a more limited effectiveness. Furthermore, as with many drugs, especially those used over a long period, antidepressants have side effects. Higher bone fracture risk and multiple cardiovascular risks have been identified; sexual side effects are common with antidepressants in both men and women; and withdrawal symptoms for those tapering off antidepressants include a long list of problems, such as panic attacks, insomnia, poor concentration and impaired memory.
Turning to the alternatives, we describe below supplements that NYBC has highlighted over the years for sleep and mood disorders. Note cautions about their use, but also note that some of these products may actually carry added benefits, rather than unwanted side effects.
1. Melatonin is a hormone occurring naturally in the body, but some people who have trouble sleeping have low melatonin levels. Melatonin has been used for jet lag, for adjusting sleep-wake cycles for people doing shift work on varying schedules, and for insomnia, including insomnia due to high blood pressure medications called beta-blockers. It is also used as a sleep aid when discontinuing benzodiazepines (Klonopin, Xanax, etc.) and to reduce side effects when quitting smoking.
2. Fish Oil. Epidemiologists have noted that populations that eat fish regularly have low rates of depression. And research has found that omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements can be of benefit in treating depression and bipolar disorder. Fish oil can also be taken with other anti-depressants as an adjunct therapy. Doses found effective in treating depression are quite high, 3 to 9 grams per day, so be aware of potential problems related to the supplement’s blood-thinning properties. Added benefit: fish oil can help manage cholesterol, and supports cardiovascular health.
3. Deficiencies in the B Vitamins, especially B12 and folate, can result in neurologic symptoms — for example, numbness, tingling and loss of dexterity — and the deterioration of mental function, which causes symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, disorientation, depression, irrational anger and paranoia. A number of studies have shown that vitamin B12 is deficient in a large percentage of people with HIV, and the deficiency can begin early in the disease. Supplementing with a B complex protects against deficiency and supports cognitive health and mental function.
4. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to depressed states. Lack of the “sunshine vitamin” may be especially associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), the “winter blues.” Vitamin D also supports bone health, and may protect against colds and flus.
5. Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea, acts as a relaxing agent by increasing levels of certain neurotransmitters (=brain chemicals that shape your mood), including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA (gamma amino butyric acid). Human studies have been limited to date, but one small study showed that theanine decreases stress responses such as elevated heart rate. Another investigation compared theanine’s calming effect to that of a standard anti-anxiety prescription drug, and found that theanine performed somewhat better. Note that NYBC stocks Theanine Serene (Source Naturals), a combination supplement that includes theanine and GABA.
6. Probiotics. Very recent research has looked into the communication between the digestive system and the brain, with a goal of understanding how gut health may influence chronic conditions, including mood disorders like depression and anxiety. For example, it has been shown that certain probiotics promote production of the calming, anti-stress neurotransmitter GABA in the body, pointing to a direct influence of probiotics on mood. Other potential links between the gastrointestinal system’s microorganisms and brain function are currently being explored.
7. L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP (5-hydroxy L-tryptophan). These closely related supplements are converted in the body to serotonin and to melatonin. (Take L-tryptophan with carbohydrates to make it effective.) Their use as antidepressants has been studied, and they have also been found to aid sleep and suppress appetite. (To minimize appetite suppression, take the supplement an hour before bedtime.) Although L-Tryptophan and 5-HTP are close relatives, people may respond somewhat differently to them, so it may be worthwhile to try the other if the first doesn’t produce an effect An added benefit: 5-HTP may also decrease symptoms of fibromyalgia and migraine headaches.
8. In research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) was found to be an effective therapy for mild-to-moderate or severe midlife depression, on par with some prescription drugs. Moreover, the research showed that taking DHEA promoted both a significant lifting of depressive symptoms and an improvement in sexual functioning. Note that dosing recommendations vary for men versus women, and DHEA is not recommended for those diagnosed with prostate conditions or cancer.
9. SAMe (S-adenosyl-l-methionine) is produced naturally in the body from the amino acid methionine. Supplementing with SAMe increases concentrations of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Several studies show SAMe having an antidepressant effect comparable to that of some prescription drugs. SAMe should be avoided in people with bipolar disorder, and should be used cautiously with other antidepressants, because the combination may push serotonin levels too high. Taking a B-complex vitamin while using SAMe can counter build-up of homocysteine, which has been linked to heart disease SAMe may also support joint health and liver function. Caution: the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has posted a warning that SAMe may increase likelihood of pneumocystis infection in immune-compromised people. Note: see also Trimethylglycine (TMG), which includes the raw materials that the body uses to manufacture SAMe. TMG is much less expensive than SAMe.
10. St. John’s Wort is a widely used herb with clinically demonstrated (multiple, well-controlled studies, mostly in Europe) anti-depressant effects for mild to moderate depression – generally without the side effects of prescription antidepressants. High doses of the herb may cause a sensitivity to light (phototoxicity), so avoid direct sunlight or sunbathing while using. Do not take St. John’s Wort with 5-HTP, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (like Prozac), or with protease inhibitors, as it may affect beneficial liver enzymes. St. John’s Wort may also have activity against Epstein-Barr and herpes infections.
11. Finally, we’ll mention another combination supplement that NYBC has stocked: GABA Soothe (Jarrow). The GABA in this supplement is the neurotransmitter that promotes calmness coupled with mental focus. Also included is theanine (see above for a description of its anti-anxiety effects) and an extract of ashwagandha, an herb which has long been used in the Ayurvedic tradition of India to reduce fatigue and tension associated with stress.
CDC statistics on antidepressant use in the US, 2005-2008: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
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National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH. S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAMe): An Introduction Accessed at http://nccam.nih.gov/health/supplements/SAMe
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Foster, J A et al. Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression Trends in Neuroscience. 2013 May;36(5):305-12. doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005.
Rao, A V & Bested, A. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study of a probiotic in emotional symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Gut Pathog. 2009; 1: 6 doi: 10.1186/1757-4749-1-6