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Depression and anxiety: Any natural remedies to try?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read

Life can sometimes become difficult – 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 placebo. 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 reduced libido, nausea, insomnia, or weight gain. 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 interact with other medications, including many antidepressants, such as fluoxetine, amitriptyline, anti-epileptic medicines, 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.

Could 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 anecdotally to help people cope with life's ups and downs, particularly at times of emotional demand.

Aromatherapy: There are many studies that confirm that certain scents 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 it is not enough to treat low mood by itself.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) 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). SAD is thought to relate to reduced daylight hours causing changes in 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 aging 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 color 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 indicates 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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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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