The statistics on depression in women are staggering. Women experience major depression twice as often as men do, and between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 women of childbearing age is on an antidepressant. Women are two and a half times more likely than men to be on an antidepressant, and the fact is that about 50% of the women who try them report never getting benefit – and even among those who reported some benefit in the first few months, 60% showed no improvement in their symptoms one year later. We also know that not all of us want to be on antidepressant medication, so if you are struggling with depression, you might be looking for an alternative.
Turmeric: An Antiinflammatory Herbal Ally
One of my favorite herbs – turmeric – has been shown to be beneficial in depression. What I love about this is two things. One, it shows that not only can we use herbal remedies as alternatives to a lot of the medications we think we need to be dependent on, but it also shines a light on one of the important facts about depression that most of us have not been informed of. We have been taught, as a culture, that depression is a chemical imbalance, that it is the “result” of us being deficient in chemicals called neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. But most of the theories that have been advanced about neurotransmitter deficiencies as the cause of depression have never been proven. What we do know is that study after study is showing us something that the field of psychoneuroimmunology has been saying for over 25 years which is that inflammation is an underlying cause of so many of the medical conditions we are experiencing, and that there really is no separation between the immune and nervous systems.
“We have been taught, as a culture, that depression is a chemical imbalance, but this completely ignores the significant role of ‘brain-flammation.'” – Aviva Romm
Turmeric is a root, actually more properly called a rhizome, that when fresh doesn’t look too dissimilar to its cousin, ginger root. That is, until you cut it open and you see the bright yellow inside! And one of the benefits of turmeric is that it is strongly anti-inflammatory.
One of the reasons that spices have been so important in cooking and have driven a global spice trade for millennia, is that they have helped to not only flavor our foods and improve digestion, but they preserve foods and protect us from harmful bacteria and other organisms that were common before we had refrigeration – which was for most of human history, until recently. Most cooking herbs impart incredible health benefits that go well beyond their taste. For example, including even a very small amount of fresh or dried herbs in our daily cooking provides a lot of antioxidant activity which protects our cells from free radical damage which causes inflammation. Turmeric contains chemicals that both prevent inflammation, and fight it once inflammation takes hold.
There have been a couple of wonderful studies in the past couple of years that have shown that a component of turmeric called curcumin, which is one of the principal active ingredients derived from the spice turmeric, influences mechanisms associated with depression – even major depression – including reducing inflammation, reducing oxidative stress which is that damage caused by free radicals, and calming down the adrenal stress response system, all helping to quiet down depression.
In 2014 a randomized control study used three groups of 20 participants, all with major depression according to a commonly used scale. Each group was given either Prozac, Prozac + 1g of oil-based curcumin, or curcumin alone for six weeks. The group on curcumin alone did just as well as the group on Prozac only – the combination group actually did the best, though there was not a major statistical difference among any of the three groups. This study demonstrated that curcumin was just as effective as Prozac, and that its use was quite safe even at a really high dose of 12g daily. The researchers concluded that “This study provides first clinical evidence that curcumin may be used as an effective and safe modality for treatment in patients with MDD [major depressive disorder] without concurrent suicidal ideation or other psychotic disorders.”
Another 2014 study showed that curcumin also benefitted major depression disorder. A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study showed that 4-8 weeks of curcumin was as beneficial as placebo for treating “atypical depression” characterized by overeating, sleeping too much, and interpersonal sensitivity. This study concurred with the previous study that when used as a standalone treatment, curcumin can be beneficial for patients with mild or moderate depression.
Use and Safety
Curcumin is easy to get and is relatively absorbable. I use it in my practice in a form called Meriva, but you can use any good quality curcumin extract. The typical does that I recommend in my practice is anywhere from 500 to 1,000 mg twice daily. There haven't been any studies on using it during pregnancy, so you want to be cautious and talk to your physician or midwife first. It is safe to use while you are on an antidepressant medication, so it is something you can use if you are trying to work with your doctor to wean yourself off of an antidepressant. If you haven’t yet started a medication, it is something you can definitely add to your repertoire for self-treatment. If you don’t have depression but want to consider using turmeric (or curcumin) to just support yourself and prevent inflammation – or if you have depression in your family and you are concerned – then certainly 500 to 1000 mg daily of curcumin extract is very safe. You can also use a couple of teaspoons of turmeric powder in your cooking or in your smoothies.
Curcmin and turmeric are both safe if you are breastfeeding. Of course if you are struggling with depression it is important to get appropriate medical care, and this article is information you can bring to your doctor's attention.
- The growing numbers of women with depression
- What society tells us causes depression
- How inflammation can cause many of the same symptoms
- What is turmeric?
- The amazing health benefits of cooking herbs
- The domino effects of inflammation
- How curcumin helps with depression
- How you can use curcumin or turmeric
- Listen to my episode about adaptogens