Depression and Anxiety: A Naturopathic Approach

By Deanna Berman, ND, CM

bigstock-beautiful-clouds-smMany people experience anxiety or depression at some point in their lives. These are normal responses to everyday life situations like the loss of a job, illness, family crisis, etc. Anxiety and depression will often resolve on their own. At other times, they can be overwhelming or debilitating. That's the time to get help.


Anxiety can present itself with constant worry or fear, insomnia, chest pain, heart palpitations, rapid breathing, or digestive symptoms. There are many types of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Depression is on the other end of the spectrum, often experienced as sadness, fatigue, and loss of enjoyment or motivation. Sometimes feelings of depression occur only during certain seasons, as in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Sometimes these feelings occur during a menstrual cycle, as with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

Many people live with symptoms of anxiety and depression, not realizing how much their symptoms are affecting their lives. Some people don't want to seek help because they don't want to take medications or they've tried medications and found the side-effects unbearable. Conventional treatment for depression and anxiety generally involves a combination of psychotherapy and medications that either increase or decrease specific neurotransmitters.

As a naturopathic doctor, I regularly see people who are living with symptoms of anxiety and depression. My approach is different. I first do a thorough assessment, looking at dietary intake, alcohol and caffeine usage, lifestyle, work environment, family history, and past and present medical history.

I have found that the symptoms many people experience are due to a combination of poor lifestyle choices, nutritional deficiencies, and an imbalance of hormones or neurotransmitters. Other times, the anxiety and depression are symptoms associated with other medical issues. Whichever is the case, my goal is to help people feel better and get healthier while either avoiding or reducing their dependency on medications.

Areas of Focus

Exercise: Research now shows the benefits of exercise for both mind and mood. First, physical activity increases endorphins, the neurochemicals that increase feelings of well-being. Second, exercise increases the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a role in regulating mood, appetite, and the sleep-wake cycle. Walking for 20 minutes a day or doing a few yoga poses will generally make a difference. Some people may need more vigorous exercise. Each individual needs to determine what is right for them.

Addressing Nutritional Deficiencies: There are many nutritional deficiencies that can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. These deficiencies can occur from not eating enough of the right foods, from poor absorption of nutrients, or from increased metabolism during stressful times. Nutrient deficiencies usually concern B vitamins, vitamins A, C, D, and K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, chromium, selenium, zinc, and potassium. It's important to eat a wide variety of whole foods while decreasing one's intake of processed foods. I also advise people to take a good multivitamin and mineral supplement, especially during times of stress. This in itself can have very positive results.

Food Sensitivities or Allergies: One symptom of food sensitivities or allergies can be fatigue, which people often mistake as depression. Another common symptom is insomnia. Food sensitivities or allergies can also lead to changes in the digestive tract, increased levels of glutamate and histamine, and decreased production of serotonin. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter 
associated with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Histamine acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and can cause symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. About 70 percent of the production of serotonin occurs in the digestive tract, so when the digestion is not optimal, it can result in lower production of serotonin.

Hormones: It's important to look at hormone levels whenever someone has anxiety or depression. The most common areas of dysfunction I see are in the thyroid and adrenal glands. Low adrenal or thyroid function can lead to symptoms that mimic depression. Hyperthyroid function or excess adrenal hormones can both mimic symptoms of anxiety. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and glutamate, are also affected by the levels of estrogen and progesterone in a woman's body.

There are many areas of physiological dysfunction that can be mistaken for symptoms of depression and anxiety. For some people, simply removing caffeine or balancing blood sugar is all that's needed; but for others, resolution of anxiety and depression is more complicated. Naturopathic medicine is effective because we look at specific body functions, considering such factors as nutritional needs and neurotransmitter and hormone production. Naturopaths strive to address underlying issues. The result is generally better health, better sleep, and a better mood.

The therapies available through naturopathic medicine are effective and often involve fewer side effects. Naturopaths look at the whole person—lifestyle choices, nutritional intake and needs, hormones and neurotransmitters — and offer a holistic and sound alternative that addresses both physical and mental well-being.

Deanna Berman, a Washington State Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and a New York State Certified Midwife, will give a free class, Natural Relief from Anxiety and Depression, at GreenStar on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 pm. Registration is required. To register, sign up at GreenStar's Customer Service Desk or call 607.273.9392. Deanna is the owner of Ithaca Integrative Women's Health in Ithaca. You can find her on the web at

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