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Treating depression: The Chinese Medicine alternative to SSRI’s

Depression and its counterpart anxiety are the most common mood disorders, affecting approximately one in five people at some point in their lives. Over the years, treatments for depression and anxiety have evolved into what we know today. SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are a relatively new group of antidepressants that specifically inhibit the reuptake of serotonin, causing it to linger longer at the synaptic junction of two communicating nerve cells resulting in improving mood.

You may have heard of some commonly prescribed SSRI’s by name: Prozac, Celexa, Luvox, Zoloft, Paxil, and Lexapro. They are often the medication of choice, because they are thought to be better tolerated with “fewer side effects” than MAO inhibitors or tri/polycyclic antidepressants. Keeping in mind that no drug is 100% safe, many wonder about the side effects of SSRI’s and their interactions with other medications.

Reported side effects can range from mild to severe, including nausea, increased anxiety, insomnia, changes in appetite, changes in libido, and diarrhea. The risk of irregular heartbeats also comes from taking an SSRI with antihistamines. SSRI’s also have an effect on blood sugar levels, meaning that patients living with diabetes and taking these medications may need to alter their dosage of diabetic medication. I do understand that my patients taking these drugs may be concerned about possible side effects and how taking these medications may affect their lives.

Antidepressants are very helpful for certain people, but clearly they are not an easy fix for everyone across the board. So, what would we in Chinese medicine do?

At The Yinova Center, I see many people who suffer with depression and anxiety. We live in a city whose air at times seems to be charged with stress particles looking for bodies to live in, which is not a new feeling in the human condition. It’s old hat to feel stressed or anxious, and as New Yorkers, we know this to be true. The ancient Chinese recognized the toll taken on individuals whose heart spirits have been taxed by sadness, fear and prolonged melancholy.

The language and medicine of the Chinese do not separate the notion of the body, mind and spirit. It is said in the ancient book “Huang Di Nei Jing” that the “good doctor first treats at the level of the spirit, the lowest doctor treats the disease.” Many simple, yet elegant formulas were designed with the intention of reintroducing the individual patient to the sweetness of life, and that is the approach I take with my patients. One formula that comes to mind is called Gan Mai Da Zao Tang. It consists of just three simple ingredients: wheat, licorice, and jujube fruit. The combination of the three work to nourish the heart, calm the spirit, and harmonize the center, all culminating to relieve depression. I believe this safe, tried and true formula when paired with weekly acupuncture is a great place to start. If a patient is already on antidepressants, the addition of acupuncture and herbs can augment the treatment one is already receiving, potentially shorten the duration or dosage of the prescribed medication, all while being safe and effective. Given the risks associated with SSRI’s and the concerns patients may have, this is a feasible way to embark on the road to recovery with a more natural and positive impact on the body, mind and spirit.

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