“I’ve struggled with depression for years, and my doctor wants to put me on yet another anti-depressant,” my reader writes. “Are drugs, and the side effects they bring, my only option?”
If you struggle with feeling hopeless, sad, or otherwise mentally fragile, you’re not alone. More than 100 million Americans – that’s literally one in three – struggle through life with a depression.
Pharmaceutical companies are quick to pick up on this broken brain problem, but conventional medicine cannot cure it.
With its symptom-based medicine approach, conventional medicine tackles depression completely wrong. Rather than determine what actually creates that depression, many doctors immediately reach for their prescription pad.
That explains why one in 10 Americans today uses antidepressants, while more than eight million children are taking stimulants like Ritalin.
These statistics are not normal.
Let’s say you complain to your doctor about chronic feelings of sadness and despair. He or she might say you have a disease called “depression,” but depression is not the cause of your sadness and despair. It’s just a name we use to group people together for the purpose of giving them all the same drug therapy.
Feel sad and full of despair? You have “depression” and need an “antidepressant!” Case closed.
But it isn’t.
Conventional medicine fails to address what causes those feelings and why they differ from one person to the next.
Let me give you an example to drive home my point. You and another person both have a “headache.” Your pain is created by drinking too much wine every night, while his results from being hit on the head with the empty bottle every night. It’s the same label, but entirely different causes.
Obviously, these two chronic headaches can’t be cured in the same way, because their root causes are different.
Yet that approach is exactly what the current medical community takes to treat depression. Simply label the disease and approach the treatment identically, even though the cause of that disease may be radically different from person to person.
Ultimately, drugs like antidepressants don’t cure the disease; they just mask the symptoms.
We don’t need to continue using these same drug treatments that don’t work, make things worse with side effects, or at best give partial relief. There’s got to be a more effective way.
And, there is.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Depression
A typical patient who visits me for depression has already visited conventional doctors, who likely prescribed numerous drugs to address their condition.
These patients understandably feel frustrated because conventional medicine has failed to address their underlying symptoms and they aren’t feeling better. They’re tired of going from prescription to prescription with varying results and miserable side effects.
Like other health issues, I take a radically different approach to depression. I attempt to understand what creates it, because to call someone depressed says nothing about the underlying causes that create depression.
Emerging research, for instance, reveals a gut-brain connection. When it comes to the gut, most physicians and scientists miss what is right in front of us, because we are looking for solutions in the wrong place.
Over the years I have seen emotional, psychiatric, and behavioral symptoms triggered by problems in the gut. One female patient of mine found herself free of lifelong depression after a course of antibiotics (metronidazole) we used to clear out bad bacteria from her gut.
I could go on, but are you beginning to understand how conventional medicine fails to connect the dots and treat underlying causes of depression? When it comes to broken brains, the key to this new paradigm is simply this: Your depression is not in your head. It is in your body.
I know how powerful Functional Medicine can become to eliminate depression because I struggled with it myself.
I saw doctors and psychiatrists, but no one could find the cause for my symptoms or agree on a diagnosis. Some said I had depression, others suggested chronic fatigue.
I decided to find the answers for myself.
By scouring the literature, consulting with other doctors and scientists, and experimenting with my own body and mind, I finally came to understand that it wasn’t just one thing that had caused my brain to break, but the accumulation of many things.
The solution involved balancing the seven core systems in my body:
- Optimize nutrition
- Balance hormones
- Cool off inflammation
- Fix digestion
- Enhance detoxification
- Boost energy metabolism
- Calm the mind
These seven imbalances underlie the causes of all illness.
Connecting the Underlying Dots
The Functional Medicine approach to depression is quite simple. You eliminate things that cause imbalances in core systems and provide your body with the things it needs to heal (like good food, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, and hormones, when necessary).
With that approach, your body will repair and heal very quickly.
When you struggle with depression, here are some questions to ask yourself and then work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to solve:
Do you have low thyroid function?
Ask your doctor to check for the following blood tests: TSH, free T3, free T4, and thyroid antibodies.
Do you have a vitamin D deficiency?
This is especially likely if you’re depressed during winter. So have your doctor check for a 25 OH vitamin D test. Your level should be over 50. If it isn’t, take 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 a day.
Do you have a folic acid or B12 deficiency?
Ask your doctor to test your homocysteine and methylmalonic acid levels to check for those deficiencies. And take an extra 800 mcg of folic acid and 1,000 mcg of B12.
Do you have a deficiency of omega-3 fats?
It’s likely, considering 99 percent of Americans do. Eat more wild salmon and sardines and take 1 to 2 grams of fish oil a day.
Do you have food allergies?
Food allergies create a metabolic disorder that can lead to a whole host of “mental” symptoms, including depression.
Gluten and dairy are major culprits. In fact, partially digested dairy and wheat particles (called caseomorphins and gliadomorphins) are found in the urine of severely depressed patients (as well as children with autism and ADHD). These odd proteins change brain function and can lead not only to depression but also psychosis and autism.
One study linked eating gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and oats) to depression. Like gluten, casein, a protein found in dairy, also has negative effects that can lead to mood disorders and altered brain function.
Do you have inflammation?
The Standard American Diet contains a host of pro-inflammatory foods. To treat depression, we must learn how to get rid of the causes of inflammation and restore the normal immune balance through our food and nutrients, as well as our exercise, sleep, and stress management habits.
Are bugs in your gut affecting your brain or immune system?
Work with your Functional Medicine practitioner to determine and eliminate gut issues including leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and other gut issues.
Do you have hormonal imbalances?
Out-of-balance hormones like insulin and cortisol can detrimentally impact depression. A real, whole, unprocessed foods diet combined with lifestyle factors like stress control can help balance hormones.
From these perspectives, you can understand how I treat depression. Oftentimes, doing detective work and trial-and-error take a little effort and time, but remember the average anti-depressant drug takes six weeks to kick in!
6 Strategies to Eliminate Depression
While uncovering the causes of depression can require patience and diligence, I’ve found everyone benefits when they employ these six strategies:
- Eat whole, real food. Feed your brain and body with a nutrient-dense, whole, fresh, plant-based diet that includes plenty of protein and healthy fats. Your brain is about 60 percent fat, so it makes sense eating plenty of healthy fats (and including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids) and protein can help heal your brain.
- Cut out sugar. If you’ve ever eaten something sugary, “crashed” a little later, and felt absolutely miserable, you know how sugar can contribute to depression. Studies confirm sugar consumption can contribute to depression. Become a detective and find and avoid hidden sources of sugar, which are more prevalent than you think.
- Exercise regularly. Studies show exercise is as good as, and even better than anti-depressants. You can find a comprehensive exercise plan here.
- Get enough sleep. Terrible sleep will only contribute to and exacerbate depression, so you want to aim for eight hours’ solid, uninterrupted sleep every night. Grab 19 of my top sleep tips here.
- Control stress levels. Constantly feeling stressed out becomes a surefire way to become depressed or stoke the fires of depression. Find what calms you and practice it regularly, whether that includes meditation, yoga, or just walking your dog. Many patients find my UltraCalm CD helps melt away stress and anxiety.
- Take the right nutrients. Many nutrients can alleviate depression and support optimal brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids and 5-HTP. I suggest working with an integrative practitioner to customize a nutrient program that works for you. You can find these and other nutrients in my store
I also strongly encourage you to read The UltraMind Solution, which delves more deeply into depression and how to fix it. Many patients have enormous success using The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, which eliminates gluten, dairy, and other food sensitivities to reduce inflammation and help you feel better. These patients also get the “added bonus” of weight loss.
If you’ve struggled with depression, has your doctor ever suggested pharmaceutical drugs? Did they help? Did you find exercise or other dietary and lifestyle factors benefitted you equally or even more? Share your story below or on my Facebook page.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.
DISCLAIMER: If you are at risk for suicide, or other harm or injury, please do not try and treat it on your own. There is help. Please call 911 or seek other help (such as a hospital emergency room or doctor’s care.)
If you are thinking of suicide, here are some resources for you:
1800 – SUICIDE
Suicide Prevention Hotline:
National Suicide Hotline: