Ads for antidepressants are everywhere, and if you struggle with major depressive disorder (MDD), you might feel like they’re your only option. But there are many valid reasons you might not want to take medication. Maybe it hasn’t worked for you in the past, the side effects have been too troublesome, or, like many others, you’d love a more natural method of treating your depression.
Just because you choose not to take medication doesn’t mean you need to suffer with your symptoms! There are many evidence-based alternative treatments for major depressive disorder, anxiety, and other mental health issues free of the side effects and the trial-and-error that come with antidepressants. Explore a few of the options below, and speak to your doctor or therapist about something new!
1. St. John’s Wort
St. John’s wort is a yellow-flowered herb believed to be medicinal, with the ability to ease mild depression. It comes in pill form, teas, and extracts and is commonly available over-the-counter. St. John’s wort has been researched as a natural alternative to antidepressant medication, and many studies have shown promise.
It’s important to note that the therapeutic benefits of St. John’s Wort as herbal medicine are still debated. Some studies show that the herb doesn’t have the symptom-reducing benefits some claim. Like other supplements, St. John’s wort may negate the effects of other medications or supplements you take, or interact with them in harmful ways. Consult with your doctor before taking St. John’s Wort to make sure it’s safe for you.
2. Fish Oil
Clinical trials show that fish oil supplements have the potential to treat depression. It’s believed that a shortage in omega-3 fatty acids can lead to MDD. Because fish oil has omega-3 fatty acids, taking it as a dietary supplement can help reduce depression. If taking a fish oil pill isn’t for you, eating a few servings of:
- Albacore tuna
each week could give you the same results and other health benefits.
3. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a highly effective, non-medication option. It’s FDA-approved to treat depression and paid for by most insurance companies. TMS doesn’t come with the side effects associated with antidepressants, and it’s proven to work for different types of depression. Rather than take a pill every day, TMS works in sessions: One session of 18 to 19 minutes for 6 weeks and then tapering sessions for about 3 weeks. TMS is delivered in-office while you sit comfortable and awake. The most common side effect is temporary discomfort at the treatment site.
TMS works by stimulating the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is thought to be underactive in people with depression. An electromagnetic coil is placed gently against your scalp, delivering short electromagnetic pulses. This helps restore the neurotransmitters that control mood to a normal level. It’s safe, convenient, non-invasive, and widely available.
4. Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)
Electroconvulsive therapy is a procedure that passes electric currents through the brain. This causes changes in brain chemistry, relieving symptoms of depression. It’s performed while you’re under general anesthesia and intentionally triggers a brief seizure. This alternative therapy comes with its share of risks, although much research has been conducted into ECT to reduce these.
Risks of ECT include:
- Muscle ache
- Medical complications resulting from anesthesia
Temporary memory loss can also occur; you may have trouble recalling events from the time you underwent ECT. This usually eases within a couple months of completing ECT treatment, although it can be permanent.
5. Vagus Nerve Stimulation
This drug-free depression treatment involves the stimulation of the vagus nerve. An implanted device delivers electric impulses along this nerve, which runs down each side of your body, from your brain stem to your abdomen. The impulses from the device run up the vagus nerve to your brain, stimulating certain areas of the brain and improving their function in those with depression.
Vagus nerve stimulation is generally used for those whose depression is chronic and difficult to treat. Potential side effects include:
- Vocal cord paralysis (usually temporary)
- Shortness of breath
Research is being done on VNS to make it less invasive.
Though it takes practice, meditation is pretty simple, it can be done anywhere, and it can help you deal with depression and a variety of other mental health problems. There’s science to back the technique up. Depression results from interactions between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is where you process emotions and mood, and the amygdala controls your body’s fear and stress responses. Meditation breaks the connection between these parts of your brain. This means stress and fear have less of an impact on your emotions and mood.
Practicing meditation doesn’t involve keeping your mind blank, as many people believe. Instead, you practice noticing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging them or acting on them. Closing your eyes and meditating someplace quiet will help you avoid distractions. It also helps to focus on your breathing or repeat a word or phrase to help draw your attention back to the present if your mind wanders. Techniques like guided imagery can also be used while meditating.
There are many free resources for meditation, including:
- Apps on the app store
- Events at community centers, like libraries
7. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of talk therapy effective for many mental health disorders. It’s provided by a licensed counselor or therapist and is usually time-limited. You’ll define your overall goals at the start of treatment, and during treatment, you’ll learn about how your thoughts influence your feelings, which then influence your behavior. CBT teaches skills to help you learn to control your thoughts. These might include:
- Various thought-stopping techniques
CBT doesn’t work for everyone, especially for severe depression. If you have depression with psychosis, or if you have bipolar disorder, CBT may not work for you. It’s all about utilizing the control you have over your thoughts.
You don’t have to take chances or tolerate side effects with medication to treat your depression. There are plenty of safe, effective alternative options. What you choose is deeply personal, and it’s your decision to make! If you have depression, talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about which of these alternative treatments may be a good fit for you.