The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, but for the 15 million Americans and 3 million Britons suffering from depression, or those grieving for a lost loved one, just a glimpse of Christmas lights can trigger a downturn. If you suffer from 'holiday blues,' your doctor may well hand you a prescription for a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), the standard drug to treat depression and one of medicine's all-time bestsellers.
But SSRIs come with serious side-effects, from insomnia and low libido to an increased risk of stroke and premature death,1 and the drugs have even been linked to aggressive and suicidal behaviors.2
A bit of Christmas cheer? There are plenty of effective natural options for tackling depression and holiday slumps.
Here are five of the best.
1) Spice it up
Extracts from the popular spices saffron and turmeric, known for their bright yellow-orange hues, are potent natural antidepressants, the latest research shows.
Both curcumin, the main active component of the Indian spice turmeric, and saffron, the famously expensive spice from the Crocus sativus flower, have been found in clinical trials to be just as effective as antidepressant drugs like Prozac (fluoxetine), but without the side-effects.3
Saffron was even the subject of a recent pooled review of seven trials, which concluded that it was safe and effective for the treatment of depression.4
But take supplements. Just cooking with the spices is unlikely to be as effective as standardized extracts of the ingredients.
Suggested dosages: 500 mg twice a day of curcumin (the BCM-95 form); 15 mg twice a day of saffron (from C. sativus petals or stigmas)
2) Get moving
Researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, conducting studies comparing aerobic exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft in the US and Lustral in the UK) found that exercise and the drug were equally effective at reducing depressive symptoms,5 but only exercise had long-lasting effects. Of the patients declared free of depression at the end of the first study, those who'd been in the exercise-only group were less likely to see their depression return during the six-month follow-up.6
Suggested dosage: three to five sessions of aerobic exercise a week, each lasting 45 to 60 minutes, aiming for a heart rate of 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate
3) Feast on fish
If you love fish, then science says you're less likely to get depressed. In one Australian study of women, those who ate fish two or more times a week had a 25 percent lower risk of depressive episodes than those who ate fish less often.7 It's thought that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are responsible for lifting mood. In fact, a number of studies have found that omega-3 supplements have a significant antidepressant effect.8
Suggested dosage: eat oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel two or more times a week, or take an omega-3 supplement (9.6 g/day); for vegans, opt for plant-derived omega-3 supplements made from algae or Echium seeds (see WDDTY August 2018 for our top picks)
4) Try St John's wort
Commonly used in Germany to treat mild to moderate depression, extracts of St John's wort can have significant effects on mood. The herb is not only better than a placebo,9 it's also as effective as antidepressant drugs, but with far fewer side-effects.10
Suggested dosage: doses of 600 to 1,200 mg/day of a standardized herbal extract are generally used, but St John's wort can interact with certain drugs, so make sure you consult with a qualified health practitioner before taking it
5) Take 5-HTP
A naturally occurring amino acid, 5-HTP is used by the human body to make serotonin, the neuro-transmitter known as the 'happy hormone,' and supplements produced from the seeds of the West African medicinal plant Griffonia simplicifolia show promise for depression. In one study, 5-HTP treatment was as effective as the SSRI fluvoxamine, but with lower numbers of treatment failures.11
Suggested dosage: 150-3,000 mg/day in up to three divided doses for 2-6 weeks. Consult a qualified health practitioner for the dose that's right for you