By Larry Malerba, DO, DHt – Contemporary scientific culture has fed us the mantra that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance for so long now that the premise is rarely questioned by the general public. On the other hand, there are many in the alternative health community who have been aware of this for a long time (1).
Such an overly simplistic explanation suits the needs of a medical establishment that can only think of illness in biochemical terms. It conveniently dispenses with the inherent messiness of human suffering and its almost infinite variations. The general lackluster outcomes resulting from the chemical solution (antidepressants) for this so-called chemical problem should be the first indication that something is seriously amiss, and that maybe medicine doesn’t really know what it’s talking about.
To discredit the chemical imbalance theory would be to poke holes in the neat little illusion that depression is one monolithic condition, differing only in its duration and severity. It would also disrupt medicine’s need to simplify and categorize illness in predictable ways that give the impression of scientific understanding and control. The last thing medicine will tolerate is the loss of its authority as the one and only source of expert opinion when it comes to health and illness. That medicine offers only biochemical solutions is a testament to its stubborn refusal to learn anything new. And so it continues to bark up the wrong tree, looking for biochemical-physiological explanations and answers where they are not to be found.
So if the vast majority of depressions are not the result of chemical imbalances, then what are the causes? The answer is that the causes are as varied as the individuals that experience depression. Although cookie-cutter medicine is ideologically predisposed to disbelieve this answer, it is, nevertheless, the conclusion drawn by most astute holistic practitioners.
First off, we must address the normal variant of depression that most individuals will experience at some time in their lives. Like sadness, joy, excitement, anger, fear, jealousy, and worry, depression is a normal human emotion that plays an important role in mental health and well-being. Just as with any emotion, to hide it or to deny it is to risk encouraging it to snowball into a larger and more formidable issue.
All emotions, including depression, require that we first acknowledge their presence and influence upon our psyches before they can be successfully resolved. This is the primary value in any effective form of talk therapy. Verbalize it, process it, assimilate the implications, release it, and move on. Depression of this type serves a very important function. It provides the impetus that allows us to reflect upon the decisions we have made and the actions that we have taken, which play a large role in the direction our life has taken. Depression allows for critical course corrections that can make a world of a difference in the long run.
Depression is commonly the result of letting other unprocessed emotions and life issues build up over time. Men are particularly prone to depression that comes from their macho, stiff upper lip conditioning, which discourages them from expressing how they really feel. They have thoroughly assimilated the twisted cultural message that to express anything but a false sense of strength and control is akin to being weak, impotent, and inadequate. Little do many men – and women – know, that it is a true sign of strength and courage to be able to face one’s emotions and issues squarely without hesitation. Most of the time this is all that is required because, once that first step is taken, resolution is usually not far off.
Of course, there are also many forms of depression that one can’t just talk one’s way out of. One such very common variant is the depression that comes with having to endure the consequences of chronic illness. Chronic pain and other medical conditions can limit the lives of individuals in ways that interfere with their goals, intentions, and personal freedom. As a consequence, they may find themselves struggling with depression over the loss of their previous state of health and well-being.
The logical solution in such cases is to address chronic illness in an effective way that leads to greater health and vitality. Once this is accomplished, depression becomes no longer necessary. Unfortunately, conventional medicine has a generally poor track record in handling most chronic illnesses. It’s prescriptions and interventions are usually only palliative and often complicate matters in such a way as to exacerbate depression. Antidepressant therapy makes little sense in cases of depression that are secondary manifestations resulting from chronic illness. Chronic illness, therefore, is best addressed with a variety of holistic measures including lifestyle changes such as yoga and meditation, diet and nutrition, and non-toxic therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy, Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda.
Grief is a state that can contribute to and mimic depression, and it is poorly served by antidepressant therapy. Grief in its early stages is a normal response to loss. It should be respected for what it is and given ample time to work itself out. Even though some of its symptoms are similar to symptoms of depression, grief is usually not a medical condition. The exception, of course, is when a person’s well-being is threatened, as in the case of suicidal feelings resulting from loss.
Surprisingly, the American Psychiatric Association is considering making changes to its bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which would encourage physicians to diagnose depression in cases of normal bereavement if patients experience depressive symptoms for more than two weeks (2). This is a prime example of the ever-encroaching trend toward medicalization that threatens to engulf American life and culture.
It is true that grief can linger for long periods and that some can become stuck in its grip. When grief becomes chronic it can look just like depression, the difference being its etiology stemming from loss. I have found that just a few homeopathic medicines – including Ignatia, Natrum muriaticum, and Aurum – are capable of handling most cases of chronic grief quite successfully (3). It is best to consult a trained practitioner in such cases.
Another variety of depression is the type that accompanies female hormonal changes. Unfortunately, this is a very common problem that is not caused by faulty brain chemistry as much as it is a function of hormonal imbalance. Such imbalances can be triggered by normal hormonal events such as the first onset of menses, pregnancy, miscarriage, labor and delivery, and menopause. Another factor that can alter normal hormonal function is the ever-increasing presence of hormonally active substances that have found their way into the food chain through big agriculture and pharmaceutical waste products.
Not surprisingly, the most common causes of hormonal imbalances that result in depression are routine medical interventions. Top on the list here are birth control pills, whether they are prescribed to prevent pregnancy or to treat already existing hormonal symptoms such as irregular periods, pain and cramping, hot flashes, and so on. Similarly, hysterectomies, tubal ligation, abortions, intra-uterine devices (IUD’s), and fertility treatments can alter the balance of normal hormonal functioning. The bottom line is that hormonal balance is a delicate matter than can be easily thrown out of kilter. And hormones are very powerful substances that can affect the entire physiology of a person.
In my experience, medical tinkering with hormonal balance by introducing estrogens, progesterone, and testosterone is fraught with difficulties and usually leads to further hormonal dysfunction. Even bio-identical hormones are capable of disrupting hormonal balance. Again, I have found that good homeopathic prescribing can often restore hormonal balance, thus resolving any hormonally related depression.
Many forms of depression are situationally induced. Bad relationships, abusive home environments, and unfulfilling jobs are just some of the situations that can precipitate depression. In such instances, antidepressants are merely palliative at best and can often contribute to enabling the dysfunctional circumstances to continue. Social services, individual and family counseling, proper nutrition and exercise, and yoga and meditation, are just a few options that will better serve individuals struggling under such difficult conditions. As these individuals become empowered, they can then make the changes necessary to extricate themselves from their painful situations, thus diminishing the likelihood of depression.
There are whole host of additional conditions that may be classified as depression but are more accurately considered categories of their own. Poor self-esteem is a very real problem that may resemble depression. Some cases of depression may be constitutional in the sense that it can be very difficult for a mild mannered person by temperament to express anger or to stand up for him or herself – and this can lead to depression. Teenagers who have undergone growth spurts often experience strong fatigue, which may be mistakenly labeled as depression. Likewise, it is not unusual for a person who has never fully recovered from a bout of mononucleosis to be lumped into the depression category.
Many individuals suffer from fatigue, apathy, indifference, or lack of energy for a variety of complex reasons. By default they tend to be labeled as depressed and given antidepressants because the medical system lacks imagination when it comes to understanding these problems. Medical science has little tolerance for the uniqueness and diversity of human suffering and is forever searching for ways to fit the round pegs of human illness into its square diagnostic holes.
The one type of depression that may actually represent a form of chemical imbalance is the kind that comes from organic brain dysfunction such as that which results from a concussion or head trauma. Even then, homeopathic medicine has documented the relationship between head trauma and depression for over 200 years – and the good news is that it has a number of therapeutic options that can relieve such depressions (4).
While antidepressants may be indicated in a small percentage of cases, it should be understood that they are almost always temporary measures that will not satisfactorily resolve the actual problem. Standard drug therapy tends to be a short-sighted cookie cutter solution for a broad spectrum of unique problems that necessitates more personalized treatment if genuine success is to be achieved. A true revolution in the way we think about health and illness will be a prerequisite to such personalized treatment, which is currently available only from holistic, integrative, green healers and practitioners.
1. Giannakali. Chemical imbalance myth takes a big public fall, Jan 25, 2012, BeyondMeds.com
2. Richard A. Friedman, M.D. Perspective: Grief, Depression, and the DSM-5,
New England Journal of Medicine 2012; 366:1855-1857, May 17, 2012
3. Larry Malerba, DO, DHt. Could Grief be Causing Your Chronic Illness?
4. Larry Malerba, DO, DHt. Unexpected Help for Victims of Traumatic Brain Injury
Larry Malerba, DO, DHt is a physician and educator whose mission is to build bridges between holistic healing, conventional medicine, and spirituality. He is the author of Metaphysics & Medicine: Restoring Freedom of Thought to the Art and Science of Healing and Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care. He writes for Huffington Post, Natural News, and the American Holistic Medical Association. Dr. Malerba is board certified in Homeotherapeutics, is Clinical Assistant Professor at New York Medical College, and past president of the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland. Website: SpiritScienceHealing.com