Some years ago I went down the therapy and medications path to combat depression. It was a frustrating process. I thought the medications did help, but they were not a solution. Since then I have looked into natural supplements that supposedly help combat stress, anxiety and depression.  There are five that I have tried that seem to have some positive effects in studies. Certainly, this is not a medical blog and I don’t know any more than what I have read, researched and observed with myself.  Those 5 are St. John’s wort, ginkgo, kava, tyrosine and SAM-e.

St. John’s wort is an herb of the genus Hypericum. It is named for John the Baptist because traditionally the herb was supposed to be collected on St. John’s Eve (June 23).

It has been used widely and studied more outside the United States and shown to improve mild to moderate depression. I have found it to be effective. But, if I had a major bout of depresssion, I would not expect it to lift me from it. It seems that we still are not sure of how St John’s wort works. Of course, that is also true of any number of commercial drugs used for depression. It seems that it probably acts as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor [SSRI], which would make it similar to Prozac.

One general warning for any of these natural supplements is not to mix them with other antidepressants. I always tell my doctor what supplements I am currently taking, and I stop them two weeks before I have blood work done so that they don’t throw off any tests. St. John’s wort is listed as causing sun sensitivity and it may interfere with anesthetics. After using it successfully for a number of years, I became concerned when I read that though it rarely causes sun sensitivity (photosensitivity) which would make you more susceptible to sunburns, there was secondary concern. Some recent studies concluded that it reacts with visible and ultraviolet light to produce free radicals. Those are molecules that can damage cells and react with vital proteins in the eye which, if damaged, precipitate out causing cataracts. Natural supplements have side effects just as any other medication.

Another popular supplement is ginkgo. This ornamental tree native to eastern China, is now grown in many countries worldwide, including the United States. Ginkgo’s earliest known medicinal use dates back to 2800 B.C., when members of the royal court were reportedly instructed to eat the leaves to combat senility.

Today it is suggested as a way to relieve mild depression.  It increases blood flow to the brain because it acts as a blood thinner and it also increases the amount of oxygen that can be transported in the blood. It is also considered to be an antioxidant.

Because it is a blood thinner, if you have hypertension, a history of stroke or are on prescription blood thinners like Coumadin, you need to be careful with ginkgo.  If you are having a dental procedure or a surgery, you also would want to avoid adding gingko.

Kava is a bit different.  It inhibits the enzyme that is involved in producing anxiety. That makes it similar to Valium and Halcyon. Anxiety is not depression, though they can be linked. I often see it advertised as a sleep aid. (So, warnings will say to avoid taking it if driving and similar situations.)

Like the others, this supplement has a long history of use. Captain James Cook was the first Westerner to encounter the herb, on a voyage to the Pacific Islands in 1768.

Someone told me that it had been “banned” from sale because it could cause in extremely high doses, ataxia and paralysis, and could be addictive. It is sold in many health food and vitamin stores, so I don’t know about any ban. You will find warnings about daily use or using it in higher dosages – which is good common sense for ANY type of  medicine.

The oddly-named SAM-e is actually S-adenosylmethionine, which is a chemical compound formed from the amino acid methionine and present in protein-rich foods, as well as in our bodies and brains.

Low levels of SAM-e in the body are associated with depression, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis and liver disorders. So,  SAM-e has been used (again, more so outside the U.S.) to treat depression and also arthritis pain. It was approved as an over-the-counter dietary supplement here only recently. I tried it for a short time and did not find any effect. It costs much more than St. John’s wort.

Tyrosine is one 20 amino acids that are the building blocks of all bodily proteins. You find it in dairy products and meats like chicken and turkey. It is a key amino acids for proper brain functioning. Because it is essential in the production of three neurotransmitters -  dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) - it has been used as a  “stress buster. ”  Tyrosine can be depleted during periods of stress. The body cannot dopamine or norepinephrine without tyrosine.

Studies were done by the military during repetitive stress situations to see if it could prevent “fatigue depression” that occurs when someone is so exhaused that they become depressed and just want to give up.

There is plenty of information on all of these supplements online – maybe too much.

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