I subscribe to Dr. Mercola’s alternative health newsletter and he wrote a recent article on effective treatments for depression. In short, he too is dead set against prescription anti-depressants and suggested 10 potentially effective alternative treatments. I’ve used several of these treatments (5-HTP, St. John’s Wort, Sam-e, exercise, time spent in the sun) with success.
In my first running life back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, I had a lot of injury problems and often became very depressed when I was unable to run. These injuries became more frequent and more serious in later years. A stress fracture in ’99 was the beginning of the end of my competitive days and the official end came 2 years later with tarsal tunnel syndrome and plantar fasciitis that would not heal on its own. Fortunately, the pain did not prevent occasional running. Whenever I could not run, my mood markedly worsened and although other forms of exercise were better than none, they provided only a fraction of the benefit. On the surface, one would think that my body was simply no longer built for running and I would be better off both physically and emotionally if I would simply stop running or at least “let go” of its importance. Nothing could be further from the truth. I did not give up and refused to believe that at the age of 21, I was over the hill. Finally, in my late 20s, I am reaping the benefits.
I now know that my thyroid/adrenal dysfunction and other imbalances caused improper connective tissue healing, which of course, left me more vulnerable to injuries. Just for one example, my tissue calcium (related to thyroid) was measured at 19 ppm at the time of the diagnosis (ideal is 40). Can you say stress fracture? I often took off more than the recommended time but if my glandular activity was out of balance, I would not heal properly no matter how much time I rested. Looking back, if I had weak adrenal from birth as my doctor suspects, I am surprised that I managed to remain competitive as long as I did.
Of course, the injuries caused some disappointment especially when I could no longer be a part of a team but those circumstances did not cause full blown depression. Chemical imbalances did. It is known that running increases production of neurotransmitter serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline and possibly GABA. My initial neurotransmitter test was done in the Spring of 2007 at a time in which I was running about 20-25 MPW and recently finished my first half marathon. It showed that my serotonin and dopamine were about 65-75% of normal. When I was not running, I’ll bet that dopamine and serotonin dropped to 50-60% of normal. Despite running and taking supplements containing bovine adrenal substance, my adrenaline level was less than 50% of normal. Inaction may have caused adrenaline to drop to around 30% of normal. That is a severe deficiency. Most doctors prescribe selective serotonin drugs, which by definition are only intended to balance serotonin, not adrenaline or dopamine so you can guess how I felt on anti-depressant drugs. In short, because I ran and took supplements, my depression symptoms were mild or sometimes even non-existent instead of moderate-severe before the energy crash in 2005. After I started taking neurotransmitter support, I feel that my running helped accelerate my recovery. All major neurotransmitters are normal as of my last medical report and my doctor told me that even the lab was surprised by how well I have come into balance.
Although I am a big believer in exercise to combat depression symptoms, there is an exception to the rule. If you are in a state of moderate or severe adrenal exhaustion, intense exercise will make you feel worse, not better. To clarify my situation, a proper diagnostic test probably would have revealed adrenal exhaustion as far back as ’98 but from ’99-’02, some of the symptoms were masked by thyroid medication. From ’03 to early ’05, a supplement containing licorice root extract and B-5 provided temporary relief. When I was relatively free from the symptoms, I was no longer competitive but was sometimes able to train at a fairly intense level and felt much better after workouts. Even now, if I am inexplicably slower by a minute/mile, I know that my formula is wrong and needs to be adjusted. I would not be nearly as well in tune with the many complexities in my body if I was not a serious runner. However, from May of ’05 until October ’06, attempts to exercise at high intensity were counterproductive to both my mood and physical well-being. If you are somebody who could once tolerate intense exercise but it currently leaves you exhausted, you may have adrenal exhaustion. If you do have it, continuing to push yourself is the worst thing that you can do. In this state, you may actually deplete neurotransmitters by pushing beyond your limits. I completely understand that you are vulnerable to depression without physical activity but in the long run, a few months of inactivity is not such a big deal. It would be better to take a full year off than continue to work out with a limited capacity to do so. Time off may accelerate your recovery and allow you to tolerate higher intensity workouts sooner rather than later. I am living proof of that. In the meantime, natural treatments for depression listed above may be helpful. Check my main website for how to diagnose and treat this disease. Simply avoiding exercise is very unlikely to cure this condition once a crash has occurred. Proper supplementation can cure it.
Relating back to Dr. Mercola’s article, which alternative treatment is right for you? That depends on your individual chemistry, which can best be determined by a neurotransmitter test. If low serotonin level is your problem, you will do better on 5-HTP or St. John’s Wort taken with a cofactor (B-6, Vitamin C). If you have a dopamine or adrenaline deficit, Sam-e is your best choice unless you are bipolar. If you have across the board low neurotransmitters as I had, it is safe to take more than one supplement. Other options to boost dopamine, adrenaline and increase thyroid activity include tyrosine with vitamin C and products containing L-dopa.
One of my readers expressed alarm at the fact that I made reference to taking Lithium, which is the stuff given to bipolar patients that causes side effects so severe that many patients refuse to take it even if they get into trouble in their manic state. For the record, I have never been bipolar and the form of Lithium that I take is a dietary supplement that is derived from vegetable culture that has been helpful in reducing the over-activity of my thyroid and adrenal glands. Causes of depression are not limited to neurotransmitter imbalances. It could be a by-product of mineral deficiencies and unbalanced glandular function that can be identified with a tissue mineral analysis. Also, body and brain chemistry are often interrelated. For example, adrenaline and dopamine are synthesized in the adrenal medulla so if you have adrenal dysfunction, you are more likely to have low levels of dopamine and adrenaline. Bottom line: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are about as effective as placebo and are less safe. Considering all the causes of depression in addition to low serotonin, ineffectiveness of that class of drug should not be a surprise.