Too often, antidepressants and a course of counselling or therapy are prescribed as the sole means of treatment for depression. Few GPs have time to inform a patient of the many complementary natural, alternative supplements, aids and balms that can ease symptoms, promote a faster recovery and offer resistance to recurring episodes. From personal experience, while these various alternatives are no substitute for the always successful two-pronged attack of antidepressants and therapy, they function as positive globs of mental-health glue, patching up cracks.
My day starts with a zinc supplement. I take zinc because zinc deficiency affects the production of serotonin, the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter that falls into severe underproduction during clinical depression. Studies show that a depressed person often lacks several key nutrients: zinc, vitamins B3 and B6, and the amino acid tryptophan. For years now, my day has started with zinc and a multivitamin that contains the daily recommended doses of B3 and B6. I also take 400mg of magnesium a day because low magnesium has been linked with anxiety. Sure enough, if I run out, symptoms intensify. When I get more in, they slink away. To address the tryptophan drought, I eat a banana every morning. Other sources of tryptophan include avocados and peanuts, two other regular fixtures on my lunch and dinner menus. On really bad days, I make a salad of all three.
Recently, I started adding an omega-3 supplement to my colourful breakfast-pill mountain after a reader wrote to tell me that a hospital psychiatrist recommended she take it. A quick delve into the Archives of Psychiatry explains why: "Research has found that people who suffer from depression who received a daily 1g dose of an omega-3 fatty acid such as cod-liver oil for 12 weeks experienced a decrease in their symptoms such as anxiety, sadness and sleeping problems. All the patients had already tried prescription drugs including SSRIs such as Zoloft, Paxil and Prozac ... Previous studies have suggested that the balance of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain may be skewed in people with depression, and cod-liver oil and fish-oil supplements can alleviate the symptoms."
At this, I raced down to Holland & Barrett, temporarily buoyed by the possibility of a new way of dealing with this surreal, funny-sad mental health rollercoaster. Two weeks in, the only noticeable effects were supreme doziness and a fascination with Channel Five. I dumped omega-3 when, after a particularly couch-potato evening, my wife accused me of "acting dumber than George Bush".
Other people have written in asking my opinion about St John's wort, "nature's Prozac". Six years ago, while trying to stave off depression without medication or therapy, I took 300mg of St John's wort a day for three months. Other than an occasional tingling sensation around my skull - rather like wearing a tight woolly hat - I noticed no diminishing of symptoms whatsoever. Eventually, I stopped taking it. However, I do know people who gush about its prowess at easing mild forms of depression. In my opinion though, taking St John's wort for clinical depression is like trying to put out a forest fire with a cup of water.
For anxiety, nothing works better than valerian root. I buy tablets from Boots and take their daytime valerian with breakfast and night-time valerian after dinner. Although the tablets smell like rotten camembert, they tackle that hideous nocturnal jangly feeling when every creaking floorboard has me body-popping on the sofa. When I'm having panic attacks, I add lavender oil to my bath at night and then, at bedtime, I put drops on my pillow. Clary sage and ylang ylang are also good for easing depression - I put drops in an aromatherapy oil-burner. For anxious symptoms, I swear by camomile and Sleepytime tea - both excellent for irritated nerves. Sometimes an old-fashioned mug of hot milk and honey does the trick, too.
These mood-fixers and tweakers are like psychological airbags fitted in the hope that they will keep me safe when the next big wreck of a mind crash comes. The better my resistance to depression, the less it can trash my life. These days I bend but I don't break. I've learned with time that none of these natural, alternative supplements can prevent depression. But they certainly help me put up a fight.