Return to Index
Can Depression Be Treated Without Medication?
Depression is a serious condition that can affect every aspect of your life. To treat depression, doctors often recommend therapy and antidepressants. But is it possible to relieve the symptoms of depression without taking medication?
This really depends on a number of factors, like how severe your symptoms are, how long you have been depressed, and what may be causing the depression. Since depression can get worse if left untreated, it is important that you work with a mental health professional to create a treatment plan that is right for you. If you are interested in treating your depression without medication, here are some of the many options.
Working with a trusted therapist is usually one of the first steps on the road to recovery. Some of the most common therapeutic approaches are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—With CBT, you address negative thinking patterns and behaviors and learn new, healthier approaches to deal with life’s challenges.
- Interpersonal therapy—During these therapy sessions, you focus on your relationships with others and the roles that you play.
- Psychodynamic therapy—With this long-term therapy, the therapist helps you examine your childhood and confront challenging issues.
You can choose to have individual therapy sessions, attend group therapy, or even do both. While you may feel more comfortable working one-on-one with a therapist, being involved in a group offers many benefits. For example, you can get support from people who are also dealing with depression, share your story, and offer hope.
Herbs and Supplements
There are a range of herbs and supplements that have been studied as possible treatments for depression. St. John’s wort is one that has a lot of evidence supporting its use in people with mild to moderate depression. In fact, numerous studies have found St. John’s wort to be more effective than placebo (sugar pill) and as effective as antidepressants. In addition, the herb does not have as many side effects as antidepressants. On the down side, though, St. John’s wort may interact with a range of medications (statins, blood thinners), so the herb is not safe for everyone. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration do not regulate the herb and the dosing in different preparations may vary greatly.
While many other herbs and supplements have been investigated, the evidence backing these is not as strong. Some examples include:
- S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe)—Small, lower-quality studies suggest that SAMe may be helpful in treating depression.
- Ginkgo—Some evidence hints that ginkgo may reduce depressive symptoms.
- Phenylalanine—Based on some lower-quality studies, this amino acid may be a possible treatment for depression. It should not be used in people with phenyketonuria (PKU)
- Fish oil—So far, there is no convincing evidence to show that fish oil is more effective than placebo in treating depression.
Never try to treat depression on your own. If you are interested in trying St. John’s wort, for example, talk to your doctor. Make sure that they are aware of any prescription medications and over-the-counter products that you take.
If you want to try a different approach to relieve your symptoms, consider one of the many treatments that fall outside of traditional Western medicine. Some studies have suggested that these alternative therapies may be helpful:
What about acupuncture? The evidence is mixed as to acupuncture’s effectiveness in relieving depression.
Can exercise lift your mood? There is reliable evidence, including a review of 28 trials, supporting the conclusion that exercise can improve depressive symptoms in adults. Some studies suggest that exercise may be just as helpful as antidepressants.
How much exercise is enough? Once you have approval from your doctor to start an exercise routine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends ONE of the following:
- 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week along with 2 or more days of strength training
- 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week along with 2 or more days of strength training
- A combination of moderate and vigorous activity along with a strength training routine
Taking the Next Step
If left untreated, depression can lead to significant life disruption, and possible suicidal thoughts and actions. That is why it is so important that you get help right away. While antidepressants and therapy are the most common forms of treatments, you may have success with a combination of therapy, alternative therapies, and lifestyle changes. Work closely with your mental health professional, keeping in mind that recovery takes a commitment on your part as well.
American Psychiatric Association
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Mental Health Canada
Depressive disorders. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric-disorders/mood-disorders/depressive-disorders. Updated November 2013. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Depression. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 14, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Depression alternative treatments. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 24, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Depression (mild to moderate). EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated January 23, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015.
How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm. Updated June 4, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015.
Moritz S, Quan H, Rickhi B, Liu M, Angen M, Vintila R, Sawa R, Soriano J, Toews J. A home study-based spirituality education program decreases emotional distress and increases quality of life—a randomized, controlled trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 2006;12(6):26-35.
Therapy. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/topics/therapy/index.aspx. Accessed July 15, 2015.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2015
- Update Date: 07/15/2015