5 Complimentary and Alternative Therapies for Depression

Helen Keller once wrote, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, you know overcoming it can often feel like an endless journey through an impenetrable swamp.

For many sufferers, the best medicine is a combination of talk therapy and antidepressants. Many others—including those for whom medication has proven ineffective or the side-effects too severe—prefer to seek out alternative therapies.

Treatments such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, supplements, herbs and even dark chocolate have all been employed in the fight against depression. Not all of the alternatives are equal, however—or even effective. In the century since Keller penned her words, we’ve learned a great deal about how to treat depression—but mixed in with the science are quite a few myths. Teasing out the fiction from the facts can be an exercise in overcoming all its own.


Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that uses the manipulation of specifically placed needles in the body. It has been used to treat a number of maladies, including depression, for centuries.


Maybe. Researchers have found that, prior to 2008, studies showing acupuncture to be as effective or more effective than antidepressants included a high risk of bias. A 2010 Stanford University study of pregnant women found a 63 percent reduction in symptoms for those receiving “depression-specific acupuncture.” Research also indicates that patients benefit more if talk therapy is used in conjunction with acupuncture.


Even though the jury is still out, acupuncture—including electroacupuncture—appears to be a promising alternative to medication for mild to moderate depression. Because of its low risk, acupuncture may be especially useful for those who either can’t take antidepressants due to a medical condition (such as pregnancy) or those worried about drug interactions or side effects.


S-adenosyl-L-methionine, or SAM-e, is a supplement that may raise levels of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. It had been used in the treatment of depression in Europe for decades before being approved as an over-the-counter dietary supplement in the US in the late 1990s.


Yes, for many people. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found SAM-e to be as effective as antidepressants and faster acting than most—usually providing relief within a few days to two weeks. In addition, it has shown to be effective for even severe depression.


Although it doesn’t work for everyone, 1,600 mg of SAM-e per day appears to be a good alternative for those who don’t respond well to other medications, those for whom waiting for other treatments to take effect would be detrimental or for people who only get partial relief from their current treatment. Contact your doctor before combining SAM-e with any medications.


St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an herbal extract that has been used to treat anxiety disorders, including depression, for centuries.


Yes, but only for mild to moderate depression. St. John’s Wort is by far the most studied alternative treatment for depression. It has been shown to work as well as antidepressants for less severe forms of the disease and has fewer side effects. It should not be used to treat major depression, however, as its effectiveness is no better than a placebo.


Three hundred mg, two or three times per day, seems to do the trick for many people suffering from mild to moderate depression. It may, however, take between four to six weeks to see improvement and therefore shouldn’t be used by those in need of immediate care. It is also known to interact with many other types of medications, so speak with your doctor before beginning a regimen of St. John’s Wort.


Vitamins B6 and B12 are important for cell growth and division. Their deficiency may lead to depression.


Probably not. There is little to no evidence that using B6 or B12 supplements helps reduce symptoms of depression.


If you’re getting enough B vitamins in your diet, you should be fine. Supplementing to treat depression, however, appears to be a waste of time.


Essential oils like Lavender, Sandalwood, Jasmine, Chamomile and Peppermint have all been implicated in helping to relieve symptoms of depression.


It can’t hurt. Actual research is scant but there does appear to be a connection between aromatherapy and relaxation—which is helpful for those suffering from depression. Evidence shows a strong correlation between aromatherapy and a placebo effect as well.


Aromatherapy can be used safely and effectively in conjunction with other treatments but probably won’t replace them.


Seventeen million Americans are diagnosed with depression each year (although, due to underreporting, the actual number of those afflicted may be more than twice that). A 2009 Gallup Poll found that one in six Americans reported having struggled with depression at some point during their lives.

[box type=”important”]A one-size-fits-all approach clearly won’t fix a problem so large. Fortunately, many of the alternative treatments can provide much needed relief and some may even compliment traditional therapies. Or, to paraphrase Helen Keller, help overcome a world full of suffering.[/box]

Works Cited

  1. Brandt, Michelle. “Acupuncture lessens depression symptoms during pregnancy, study shows.” Stanford School of Medicine. 22 Feb 2010. 1 Nov 2011.
  2. Chen, Yemeng, O.M.D. “Acupuncture in the Treatment of Brain Disorders.” Acupuncture & TCM Blog. 1999. 2 Nov 2011.
  3. Mischoulon, David and Maurizio Fava. “Role of S-adenosyl-L-methionine in the treatment of depression: a review of the evidence.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002; 76 (suppl): 1158S-61S
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.” Website. 2011 2 Nov 2011.
  5. Pelham, Brett W. “About One in Six Americans Report History of Depression.” Gallup. 22 Oct 2009. 2 Nov 2009.
  6. University of Maryland Medical Center. “Depression.” Website. 2011 1 Nov 2011.

Michael Kerr

Michael Kerr is an award-winning freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in numerous publications both online and off, including Portland Business Journal, Healthline Networks, Eat Drink Better, USA Today and many others. He blogs about nutrition and fitness for Hive Health Media and other websites.

3 thoughts on “5 Complimentary and Alternative Therapies for Depression

  • January 24, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Don’t forget light therapy. I got a SunTouch this winter and it has made a big difference in my mood, attitude and energy levels. I doubt it would work in more severe cases, but it has been just what I needed to replace a low dose of Zoloft.

  • December 11, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Exercise is a treatment that is missing; starting a regular exercise program, with at least 30 minutes of daily exercise does the brain good.


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