Every year, about one in 25 Australian adults meets the criteria for being diagnosed with depression, with women more likely to be diagnosed compared to men (9.9% for women compared to 5.6% for men)
More than 1 in 10 people are currently taking anti depressants, with Australia being the second highest prescriber of anti depressant medications in the world, beaten only by Iceland.
But are anti depressants really the best choice in dealing with depression?
The Medical Journal of Australia recently reported that there was growing evidence that the drugs were not as effective as once thought. There are also many side effects of anti depressants, some of which include nausea, weight gain, loss of libido, erectile dysfunction, insomnia, agitation, irritability, anxiety, dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, dizziness and ironically, suicidal thoughts.
The most common class of anti depressants are called SSRI’s. They work by blocking the re-uptake of serotonin in the brain. In order words, instead of serotonin being re- absorbed back into the nerve cells of the brain, this re-absorption (or re-uptake) is blocked so the serotonin stays for longer in the synapse, which is the gap between the nerves. By staying longer in the synapse, the theory is that this improves communication between the nerve cells, thereby strengthening the circuits in the brain that regulate mood.
There are inherent problems in this theory. The first problem is that the assumption is made that the depression is a serotonin deficiency, whereas there are many contributing factors that lead to depression. The second problem is that the body responds to the increased serotonin in the synapse by reducing the amount of serotonin produced. Research published in the Neurochemistry International Journal reported that the serotonin level of rats was reduced by 60% after being administered Citalopram, an SSRI anti depressant drug.
This explains why people on SSRI’s often state that although they may have some relief from the depression initially, after a while the drugs stop helping.
It also explains (at least in part) why when people stop taking the anti depressants, the depression often returns. The other reason that the depression returns is that these drugs do not treat the causes – just the symptoms.
Is there an alternative to anti depressants?
Saffron, known most commonly as a food spice and dye, has been used for over 3,000 years as a medicinal herb. Egyptian healers used it as a cure for gastrointestinal ailments. In ancient Rome, saffron was prescribed for wounds, cough, colic, and scabies. Ayurveda, an Indian health practice thought to be more than 5000 years old, has traditionally used saffron as a sedative, expectorant, anti-asthma, to promote menstrual flow and as an adaptogenic agent. Traditional Chinese Medicine has been using saffron for thousands of years to treat depression. In Traditional Persian medicine saffron was used for depression, fear, confusion, menstrual difficulties and abdominal pain.
There has been some exciting research recently investigating saffron as an anti depressant and so far, the results have been astounding.
A 2014 meta-analysis published in the Human Psychopharmacology Journal stated that Saffron was “confirmed to be effective for the treatment of major depression.” It also went on to say that “when compared with anti depressant medications, (Saffron) had similar anti depressant efficacy.”
Another meta-analysis published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine in 2013 concluded that “saffron supplementation can improve symptoms of depression in adults with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).”
Research is discovering that there are various mechanisms by which Saffron acts as an anti depressant. One of the major contributing factors to depression is inflammation and saffron has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. It also acts as an antioxidant and has neuroendocrine and neuroprotective effects, all of which combine to relieve depression. Further research needs to be done, but it also appears that Saffron can modify levels of Serotonin.
One of the fantastic benefits of using saffron is that it can be safely taken in conjunction with antidepressant medication, unlike another herb commonly used for depression, St. John’s Wort.
It is important to understand that there are many factors that contribute to depression and it is important to address all of those factors in an holistic way. By treating depression in an holistic way, you are treating the cause of the depression, not just the symptoms.
In particular, when combined with turmeric, saffron is a safe and effective alternative to antidepressants and if necessary they can both be used in conjunction with the anti depressants. Should you wish to try saffron or turmeric to help with depression, always seek professional advice from a qualified Naturopath or Herbalist, as it is essential to ensure that the quality is of the highest standard and also that the correct dosage is prescribed.
If you are on antidepressant medication you should only stop taking them under your Doctor’s supervision.
By Andrea Southern, Naturopath, Nutritionist, Herbalist at Stafford and The Gap in Brisbane. For an appointment phone 0412 791 705