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Depression and Anxiety: Any natural remedies to try?

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 5 minutes read

Life can sometimes hit the buffers – stresses in your relationship, a heavy workload, or an exam or interview looming. Tension and negative thoughts can set in, even feelings of panic or gloom. You might want to try something yourself before getting a doctor’s opinion, and non-medical products can be a good choice for mild symptoms – our pharmacist is here to advise you.

Doctor’s advice

I’ve heard St John’s wort works, tell me more

It’s not clear exactly how it works, but it’s thought that substances within the extract may block certain mood-lowering neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby preventing them from activating to cause depression. Other neurotransmitters are considered to elevate your mood, such as serotonin and dopamine, and St John's wort might increase these.

So how effective is it? A systematic review of studies found that St John’s wort is shown to have significant effects on helping with mild depression compared to placebos. However, at best, studies show it’s only as good as a low dose antidepressant such as amitriptyline, which would be prescribed by your doctor. It’s therefore not effective for moderate or severe depression.

You can expect St John’s wort to start working one to two weeks after you start taking it. As with most depression treatments, you shouldn’t stop it suddenly - gradually reduce the dose then stop.

It’s thought to have fewer side effects than prescribed antidepressants, such as:

However, in some it can cause trouble sleeping, an upset stomach, irritability, fatigue and skin rashes, as well as sensitivity to light if taken at higher doses.

A note of caution: St John’s wort can disrupt other medications, including many antidepressants, such as fluoxetine, amitriptyline, antiepileptic medication, contraceptive pills, anticoagulants and immunosuppressants. If you have medications prescribed by your doctor, you must speak to them or your pharmacist before taking St John’s wort, to check if it’s safe for you.

You should avoid St John's wort if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Will anything help when I feel anxious?  

Some pharmacy products are known to calm anxiety and that panicky feeling that can rise up. Let’s take a look at a few on the market.

Kalms Day is a remedy containing valerian, hops, and gentian root extracts. It claims to relieve irritability, anxiety and the stresses of everyday life. Many people find using these can help calm them down, particularly before anxious times such as exams, job interviews or a flight. The valerian extract in Kalms tablets is also useful to aid sleep, by allowing the user to wind down in the evening, before heading to bed.

Bach Original Flower Rescue Remedies come as drops, pastilles, lozenges or sprays. It is a botanical formulation containing flower extracts of rock rose, impatiens, clematis, star of Bethlehem and cherry plum. Rescue remedy products have long been used to help people cope with life's ups and downs, particularly at times of emotional demand.

There are many studies that confirm that certain scents or aromatherapy can influence brain activity and enhance certain mood states. Those known for improving mood are those of lavender, rosemary, frankincense, jasmine and lemon. Aromatherapy can be a useful drug-free add-on to any other therapy, but is not enough to treat low mood by itself.

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) supplements: 5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid produced by the body and is converted by the body into serotonin, a neurochemical that helps elevate mood and melatonin, a hormone that is important for sleep. 5-HTP is involved with the regulation of mood, appetite and gut function.

I get the winter blues, what’s light therapy all about?

The winter blues are medically termed seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is thought to relate to reduced daylight hours, causing changes to melatonin and serotonin, which then disrupts the sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) and brings our mood down.

So it makes sense that if we fix the lack of natural light, we’ll feel happier – that’s the idea behind SAD lamps.

SAD lamps produce very bright light (around 10,000 lux) - some people feel better by sitting in front of a lamp for 30 to 45 minutes each morning. The evidence base for this is still unclear, but lots of people say it helps them feel in better balance, more awake in the day, and it gives their mood a boost.

SAD lamps filter out most if not all UV light – which is good in terms of avoiding skin ageing and sunburn, but it also means it won’t provide you with the vitamin D that sunlight generates.

Would a vitamin boost help?

Vitamin D: We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight, so the darker days of winter mean we risk becoming deficient. It’s thought that vitamin D boosts serotonin levels, which work in the brain to elevate mood, so this may also play a role in the winter blues. It’s recommended that everyone takes a supplement through the winter, to benefit bones, teeth, muscles and mood, and those spending lots of time indoors or of darker skin colour should take a supplement all year round.

Vitamin B family: Vitamin B6 is thought to boost serotonin levels, so without enough onboard, we run the risk of depression. In older people, vitamin B12 helps with cognitive function, and runs low in those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which suggests boosting this may help. It also suggests the role vitamin B may play in brain function, but we haven’t discovered everything yet.

Magnesium: It's known to help relax the blood vessels and reduce inflammation when taken as a relaxing foot soak, but can it influence mood? Some studies suggest a link, but further research is needed to determine how strong this link is. Magnesium generally has limited bioavailability when taken orally, but topical treatments such as in baths can be a useful source of magnesium. If nothing else, a lovely relaxing bath may be just the ticket to help you unwind and get a good night’s sleep.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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