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(Dec 2021) I recently participated in a webinar on Alternative Botanical Low Mood Support by Dr. Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, from the University of Arizona. It was sponsored by Gaia Herbs, a source for high-quality, healing plants and extracts. Low mood is a euphemism (PC version) for depression, which has run amok in this country. In her slide presentation (available from www.gaiaprofessional.com), Dr Alschuler shows that greater than half the US population is suffering from depression. Most of these cases are mild, but a substantial number of folks are moderately (15%) to severely (13%) depressed. These numbers are staggering, fueled in large measure by the Covid pandemic.

With its mind on profit, conventional medicine has largely ignored immune health and nutrition during this pandemic. No wonder Covid drags on, and is testing our resilience. Big Pharma’s battery of antidepressants (e.g., Prozac, Wellbutrin, Cymbalta) do not address the cause. They are geared to correct neurotransmission, but low serotonin levels is not the issue for most patients. They claim these drugs to be game changers, but they don’t fare much better than placebo, according to Dr. Alschuler. And they come with a long list of side effects, like insomnia, agitation, drowsiness, gut issues, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and the like. 

In contrast, a holistic or integrative practitioner looks at depression from a number of angles, trying to get to the cause.  Lack of exercise, caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, lack of sleep, and loneliness can all contribute to depression. Many conditions can present as depression,  including PMS, eating disorders, pain, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and hyperglycemia. Each should be treated differently, and each patient, uniquely.  Integrative physicians diagnose and treat the underlying causes, such as altered methylation patterns, inflammation, nutrient deficiency, and endocrine dysfunction. Solving these riddles takes considerable effort. But, with new insights, modern tools and more informative blood tests, practitioners can get their patients on the right track.

Patient health is supported, whether they choose to stay on anti-depressant drugs or not. Dr. Alschuler uses many herbs and nutrients in her practice to address the many side effects of drugs (e.g., lemon balm, skullcap, passionflower, gingko, ginger, yarrow, adrenal extracts, hypoglycemics, and maca, to name a few). Foods and supplements containing vitamin C, copper, iron, magnesium, vitamin B6, folic acid, zinc and SAMe support neurotransmitter production. Amino acids can also be therapeutic: Tryptophan converts to serotonin and melatonin to support mood and sleep. Phenylalanine and tyrosine are the building blocks for catecholamines, such as dopamine and epinephrine. Glutamine is used to make GABA, a calming neurotransmitter. Deficiencies of lysine are linked to anxiety. Arginine reduces cortisol and stress. And glycine inhibits excitatory neurons. The list of remedies is long, including many dietary supplements not listed here, but can be tailored to the type of depression.

If the patient desires to be drug free, it is best to wean them off slowly. Drug withdrawal rests on the four pillars of nutrition, relaxation, exercise and supplementation. Dr. Alschuler discusses them all, but her main focus was on herbs. The first in her arsenal is St. John’s Wort (Hypericum), which has many functional ingredients (hypericin, hyperforin, catechins) and benefits (anti-inflammatory, calming, astringent, antimicrobial) to ease and overcome depression. The benefits are supported by many clinical trials. Saffron is another promising, clinically-backed herb, along with chamomile. Melatonin also has anti-depressant effects. Adaptogens help regulate HPA Axis activity (glucocorticoid release) to mitigate stress. Among the adaptogenic herbs: aswagandha has more sedative-like properties; maca is restorative; schisandra is anti-inflammatory; eleuthero helps with stamina; holy basil is uplifting and energizing; and rhodiola is more stimulating. Some of these herbs are medicinal in nature, but others contain vitamins, mineral, oils and polyphenols to address deficiencies. 

Herbs and nutrients have the capacity to heal. But, as Dr. Alschuler highlights, it is not enough to alleviate illness. The greatest medicine is to live life fully, exuberantly. Adaptogenic herbs are helpful in this capacity, as are herbs and nutrients that relieve fatigue and support metabolism. Beyond just surviving, practitioners can help their patients thrive, despite the growing odds.

Remember, not all herbs are created equal. They differ widely in efficacy, quality and transparency. Go organic whenever possible. Gaia Herbs is a great place to start.

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