Herbs For Depression: Combating Sadness with Turmeric and Star Wars

Thursday, December 17, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Physical Health and Emotion

Our dog's name, roughly translated into Latin, means "Star Wars". So I feel compelled to at least mention the fact that Star Wars VII IS ALMOST HERE, YOU GUYS! But because I do not have a sci-fi fangirl blog, I need to keep all this excitement in check and stick to the psychology. So let's get to it. 

There are a number of vitamins and minerals that are critical for emotional health, from magnesium, to zinc to vitamin B to vitamin D. Like the diverse forces of the Rebel Alliance, all of these contain properties that are required for appropriate functioning of the brain, often on a cellular level.

But did you know that there are certain herbs that may be useful in reducing mental health issues as well? 

Let’s talk about turmeric, an earthy, almost-bitter-but-not-quite herb often used with curry in Indian dishes. It’s not just for curry anymore.

Yoda would approve.


Curcumin As A Natural Antidepressant 

Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, may be an effective antidepressant, according to numerous studies including a 2013 article published in Phytotherapy Research1. In this study, researchers pitted the commonly prescribed Fluoxetine (Prozac) against curcumin for six weeks. Curcumin was found to be as effective as Prozac in reducing depressive symptoms in patients with Major Depressive Disorder. No small feat, especially since patients reported no adverse effects to curcumin. Prozac, on the other hand, has a laundry list of side effects including agitation, restlessness, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, sexual dysfunction and even scary or suicidal thoughts2.  

This ability to decrease depressive symptoms may occur because curcumin is an anti-inflammatory agent with strong antioxidant properties. Depression, like a number of neuropsychiatric disorders, tends to worsen over time as the cells degenerate and lose their ability to relay messages or protect themselves from destruction (more here).

Cell destruction is the Darth Vader of depression. It spends a lot of time weakening critical regions of the brain so that during one last stressor, systems break down and depression wins. 

Fucking Vader. 

Curcumin’s antioxidant and ant-inflammatory properties may serve to protect cells in the brain and body alike, a critical element in the treatment of depression. This may also explain why curcumin demonstrates neuroprotective effects in a number of disorders besides major depression, from tardive dyskinesia to epilepsy4. There is even research to suggest that it may be beneficial in improving function in Alzheimer's patients3,4 and may reduce symptoms of dementia6.

Curcumin = the Yoda of depression (at least until episode VI), strengthening all those systems to launch a counter attack  

There is also another, more specific, explanation for curcumin's remarkable antidepressant qualities,  and it has nothing to do with light sabers. But we have to go deeper than a Gungan underworld for that.  

Curcumin, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BNDF) and the Hippocampus

Rat studies generally show the same antidepressant effects as those done with humans, though the depression tends to be induced beforehand. This allows us to avoid making people upset, giving them herbs, then sneaking up behind test subjects with a frying pan (or a light saber as it were) to see what it did to their brain.   

Even in cases where people were not actively trying to piss rats off so that they could later cure them, curcumin was still found to beneficial and reduced depressive symptoms such as helplessness and decreased motor activity5. Reductions in depression were found to be dependent on the dose of curcumin: the more they were given, the less depressed they were5

Researchers attributed these alterations to brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is critical for protecting and growing new neurons. This is especially important in the hippocampus, an area routinely found to be damaged in depressed patients. In this case, the study found that curcumin effectively increased levels of BNDF in the hippocampus, and the more curcumin, the higher the BNDF in the region. 

BNDF = Luke Skywalker?

It's enough to get you excited about Episode VII (as if you needed another reason).  

Foods For Depression: Upping Your Intake Of Curcumin 

Many choose to take curcumin supplements like this one, but others like to find whole food sources when possible. A quality turmeric powder like this can be easily added to smoothies, sprinkled over roasted vegetables, or stirred into a marinade for fish or chicken. My kids love it with coconut milk over stir fried vegetables and raisins. You can also mix grated turmeric root or turmeric powder into warm milk with a little raw honey for a delicious hot chocolate alternative. 

But my all-time favorite way to eat turmeric is in oatmeal. I know, it sounds crazy. Not as crazy as kissing your brother before you knew he was your brother (really Leia?), but stay with me.

Turmeric Oatmeal AKA Yoda Surprise:

  • 2 cups oats (I use sprouted oat groats, but you can use any kind you have on hand)
  • 4 cups water, milk or a quality coconut milk (not Coconut Dream, that shit's anything but dreamy.)
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric
  • a dash cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 3-4 chopped apples 
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • raw honey to taste
  • chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, shredded coconut (optional)

Just cook the oats in the water (or milk). While they cook, add the vanilla, coconut oil and spices. Three minutes before the oats are done, toss in the apples and the raisins. Top with honey if you're a sugar freak like I am, or add chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds or shredded coconut for a little more texture. 

How to Grow Turmeric

While turmeric can get expensive if you buy it often, it is easy to grow. You just have to find a grocer who sells the root so you can plant it, or order it online here. Just put the root in a large pot, or stick it in the ground outdoors if you live in a warm climate.  Keep the soil moist but not wet, and watch it grow. It does take about eight months to go from root to harvest, but if you are careful, you can usually replant the same root after harvesting a hunk to grow more for the next year. 

It’s the gift that keeps on giving.  Much like a ghosty Obi Wan, but in a much less creepy way.  

*Curcumin or turmeric should not be used as stand-alone treatments for depression. If you are suffering from depression, please seek the assistance of a clinician. 

Related posts:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23832433
  2. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a689006.html
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781139/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929771/
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23142609
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665200/

Topic-Relevant Resources

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
An in depth look at how the food industry alters physical and emotional health through advertising and addictive substances.

Listening to Prozac: The Landmark Book About Antidepressants and the Remaking of the Self, Revised Edition
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer discusses the implications of preferred personality on mental health along with the evolution of Prozac as a preferred treatment for undesired traits.

Against Depression
Detailed explanations of the systems involved in depression along with personal stories of success from psychiatrist Peter Kramer.

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics