Depression – It’s Heart Felt
by Nancy T. Angelini LMT, Clinical Herbalist
I could start this article, as many articles about depression begin, by quoting statistics that cite how deeply so many of us are affected by depression. Statistics, however, tend to distance us from the actual struggles that depression is and depersonalize a very personal reality. I prefer, instead, to quote Tom Robbins’s classic title, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. It is safe to say that most of us have experienced depression in one of its manifestations during some period of our lives.
There are those of us who wish to stay as close to nature as possible when considering support for a blue mood. We wonder if dietary changes and herbs or supplements will work. In order to make natural choices for depression, we may need to think differently about the roots of depression in order to be effective in making choices that work for us. Although our current health model, which decidedly focuses on our brain and its neurotransmitters as the prime influencers of our moods, is not inaccurate, we instinctively know that there is more than just mind at work here. We cannot separate the mind from the body or either one from the Spirit. Thousands of years of observation and experience from traditional cultures, as well as our own personal experiences, tell us that aspects of our person other than mind are involved in this debilitating disorder called depression. We may feel the epicenter of hollowness in the pit of our stomachs or experience a flatness or dullness somewhere in the area of our hearts and instinctively know that an unbalanced stomach, mind and heart are all connected in creating the unwelcome experience. The marvelous news is that natural programs that encompass the gut, brain and heart systems, support a healthy mood and help create a balanced and bright outlook.
The most widely used criteria for diagnosing depressive conditions are found in the American Psychiatric Association’s revised fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is predominantly used by medical professionals in the West. This text, however, is not the only paradigm for our “Dark Night of the Soul.” Whereas the Western medical tradition merely lists the criteria of depression, both the ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medical traditions trace the course of depression. From an Ayurvedic point of view, most mood afflictions are a result of imbalanced Vata, the wind element in the body. This wind element is most localized in the lower gut and is paired with brain function. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the heart is directly paired with the small intestine. Additionally, the heart also happens to be the abode of the Shen, otherwise known as the Spirit. In both ancient traditions digestion imbalance leads to disturbed Spirit, or what we might call depression.
Scientists in the West may be learning from these ancient traditions, for there is an emerging new area of study called gastro-biological psychiatry which suggests the potential for beneficial bacteria, housed in the intestinal tract, to influence gut-brain communication. Early studies are suggesting that the use of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria can influence mood, brain function and mental outlook. The total health of our digestion and the support of our body-wide micro-biome may be relevant in creating a more buoyant emotional state on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps it is not by accident that recent yogurt commercials talk about a “happy gut,” and how much better we feel when we create one through good dietary practices. Although much more research needs to be accumulated to prove the gut-mind connection, the validity of this connection is most certainly evident; corroborating the ancient wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and the modern-day empirical observation that many of the herbs and medicinal mushrooms that support mood also support digestion and vice versa.
Then There Are Our Hearts
What better proof that our hearts are intrinsically linked with our moods than to understand the critical connection between the heart and serotonin, the “feel-good” hormone. Serotonin is a hormone/neurotransmitter produced in the gut directly affecting mood and overall health. Recent cardiologic research has begun to build a case that the heart is much more than just a muscular pump; it is also an endocrine gland, replete with its own hormone-like compounds; some of which are being tied to mood, apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells and other homeostatic functions. It turns out that our hearts are sensitive to serotonin, which is produced in the gut as part of the L-tryptophan cascade. The heart has more receptor sites for serotonin than any other tissue or cell in the body. This physiological reality allows the heart to access serotonin even when this hormone’s production is less than optimal. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, lifting and centering the Spirit through the heart was central to creating equanimity. Interestingly enough, excessive joy, otherwise known as over-excitement, is considered to be as injurious to the heart as not enough joy.
If you dare connect what seems at first blush, disparate threads, you begin to animate the marionette of positive mental health through digestive health and heart health. Choosing herbs and supplements that support gut function, digestion, heart health and neurotransmitter production is easier than it sounds. Nature has already created herbs, foods and compounds that target these systems simultaneously.
Albizia, known as the Mimosa tree and found growing in the southern states of the US, has been shown to increase production of serotonin; as well as to support activity in our digestive system. St. John’s Wort continues to be studied by scientists who confirm its effectiveness on lifting mood and soothing intestinal mucosal membrane activities. Hawthorne has the distinct attributes of balancing digestion, blood pressure and mood. Lion’s Mane is the newcomer to the West for balancing the nervous system and supporting digestion. Holy Basil boasts several mechanisms of activity in the body; supporting digestion, balancing blood sugar, enhancing heart health and most importantly, creating a positive mental outlook. 5htp and L-tryptophan are amino acids that are part of the same cascade producing serotonin and melatonin. These regulate sleep, reduce stress and contribute to a buoyant being. L-tyrosine and GABA, also amino acids, have the dual function of neurotransmitter support and heart health. Let’s not forget from our earlier citing that probiotics have the “newly” acquired auspiciousness of digestive and neurotransmitter support. The beauty of all of these natural remedies is that they are safe taken at their suggested servings and can be taken for long periods of time as a broad reaching approach to ameliorating mild depression. There is no “silver bullet,” but this approach will make sense not only to your body, but to your mind and spirit as well.
Although “the blues” can visit any of us for a day or sometimes longer periods of time, we have choices: to develop an herbal and supplement program, to make a daring change of dietary habits, and to exercise often enough and long enough to make a noticeable difference in our attitudes. All of these natural decisions can help us shift toward a positive outlook, giving ourselves an opportunity to avoid or attenuate the use of drugs with unsavory side effects. Ancient wisdom tells us, and modern science confirms, that there are ample effective, safe and natural remedies to help us turn our moods around. If you are inspired, see your local clinical herbalist, naturopath or doctor “in the know” about effective natural remedies for depression.”
Nancy T. Angelini LMT, Clinical Herbalist
A clinician of 27 years, 14 years educator and speaker in the Natural Products Industry. Currently, National Science Educator for Source Naturals, Owner and Clinician of Angel Clinic in Wenham, Massachusetts and freelance writer for natural products industry publications. Compiles, writes and presents lectures on many health topics with a focus on alternative health and wellness using food, herbs and supplements to support wellness and longevity.
References available upon request.