By Victoria L. Freeman, PhD., Experience Life
Feeling a little low? You’re not alone. The World Health Organization says 121 million people currently suffer from depression. That means almost 10 percent of women and nearly 6 percent of men in any given year will feel depression’s common effects sadness, a waning interest in daily activities and sagging energy.
“We’re facing a bad-mood epidemic,” says Julia Ross, MA, author of The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Take Charge of Your Emotions Today (Penguin, 2004) and executive director of Recovery Systems in Mill Valley, Calif., a clinic that treats mood problems using counseling, nutritional therapy and biochemical rebalancing. “It’s clear that our moods are deteriorating at unprecedented rates.”
It’s also clear that antidepressant drugs have become the first line of defense. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jan. 9, 2002), antidepressant drug use for treating outpatient depression increased from 37 percent in 1987 to 75 percent in 1997.
Antidepressants work for many people, at least in the short term, and if you’ve exhausted all the natural solutions without success, then pharmaceuticals could be the right choice, according to Ross. “But before you go down that road, it’s important to understand that drugs like antidepressants carry the risk of significant side effects plus they don’t actually ‘fix’ the underlying problem.” she explains. “Antidepressants can only stimulate the mood-enhancing brain chemicals you already have, but most disorders stem from having inadequate levels of these chemicals to begin with. What you really need to do is rebuild the deficit.”
Ross and a growing number of other experts believe that nutrients called amino acids offer a way to build your levels of good-mood compounds. Aminos often also lift depression’s dark cloud even faster than drugs. Whereas the National Institute of Mental Health reports that the onset of action for antidepressants ranges from two to eight weeks, Ross says one week seems to be the upper time limit for relief with amino acids. In fact, she says that many people feel a lot better in just 24 hours.
Of course, neither amino acids nor antidepressants work for everyone, but a 1991 head-to-head comparison published in the medical journal Psychopathology found that the amino acid 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) actually outperformed the antidepressant Luvox in ratings of improvement for depression (66 percent versus 62 percent) and anxiety (58 percent versus 48 percent) following six weeks of treatment. Adds Ross: “At our clinic we’ve seen a 98 percent success rate using the targeted amino acids to treat mood disorders, and there are virtually no side effects when they’re used properly.”
In contrast, negative side effects from prescription mood-altering drugs are serious enough to convince some people that the benefits just aren’t worth it. Not everyone who takes antidepressants experiences all (or even any) negative effects, but the list of possible well-known problems is daunting. That list includes nausea, headaches, extreme fatigue, dizziness, weight gain, insomnia and diminished libido. Research presented in the British Journal of Psychiatry (Dec. 2000) suggests that some types of antidepressants are even linked to suicidal thoughts and actions, and in 2004, the FDA recommended that antidepressant medications carry a warning label to that effect.
Next: Why do mood disorders occur?