LEARNING ABOUT DEPRESSION
FROM AN AMATEUR

by Steven A. Cramer

 

 

If you suffer from serious depression, as I did, you might be interested in what I have experienced and learned. Here’s an outline of what is covered in this article:


DEPRESSION IS GROWING INCREASINGLY COMMON

Struggling with feelings of stress, anxiety or depression might be considered a social epidemic in our modern society. Tens of millions of people are limping through life with the help of brain chemistry and mood-altering prescriptions.

Being depressed is a little like trying to drive a car with flat tires. While the car could still be driven, it is basically incapacitated and unable to perform as expected. Depression places a similar limitation on relationships. One feels so empty and hollow, so confused, that he cannot effectively relate to people anymore. To escape these complications, he may retreat into isolationism as I did during my sexual addiction years.

As described in our book, The Worth of Every Soul, I suffered from severe bouts of depression even after experiencing the "born-again" process of mighty change that freed me from my addictions and allowed me to be rebaptized. After the intense spiritual experience of being rescued and born again, I felt ecstatic. The euphoria I experienced was much like the bouncy happiness one feels during the Christmas season. I felt so wonderful to be free of the threat of falling back into the cycles of addiction, so wonderful to feel clean, worthwhile and whole.

I had been enjoying a deep and loving fellowship with Deity. I felt that through my books and firesides, I was also helping others gain faith in Christ and find freedom. It was wonderful to feel safe to go home and interact with my wife and children without fear or stress. Our relationships were improving and life was good. I was happy and I felt deep gratitude and devotion to the Lord for saving me, as well as toward my wife, LoAnne, for her part in that healing process.

But I then began to suffer terribly depressing mood swings. Periodically, I plunged into feelings of dark gloominess, hopelessness and hostility that were very much like I had experienced during the "buffeting" years of my excommunication. Once again my "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality was returning,. I was confused and bewildered because this time it was not caused by cycles of sin. I didn’t know why it was happening or what to do about it.

In many ways, those feelings of depression were even worse to deal with than the guilt I had experienced during my years of sin. At least, back then, I had known what to blame. But now, freed from the addictions and immorality, I had no clue what was causing my difficulties. The coming years of depression cycles proved to be as great a threat to our marriage as the addictions had been. It would seem a long time before I got medical help and discovered that what I was suffering has a name and is treatable: clinical depression.

For the next seventeen years my depression was treated with anti-depressant medications. The doctors had to change the drugs every few years because, for many people, the effects of any one particular drug may be limited. (In The Worth of Every Soul we described what those on and off again cycles did to our marriage and personal lives when the medications stopped working.) There are lots of annoying side effects to anti-depressant drugs, but they got me through and helped me to function well enough to get by. My life got a lot better when I learned how to replace the prescriptions with natural supplementation -- but more about that later.

I’ve met many people in the Church who suffer feelings of guilt for being depressed or for needing medication. This is not a productive response to depression. With the abundance of medical prescriptions and natural supplements now available for treating depression, the shame should not be in needing emotional or mental support, but rather, in not doing anything about it.

It is my opinion that if someone is trying to grow spiritually and conquer inappropriate emotional or behavioral problems—but have an untreated chemical imbalance—they are fighting with both hands tied behind their backs and with unnecessary and almost insurmountable handicaps. As one nutritional scientist stated: "Building toward effective self-actualization cannot use a short-cut approach. If we demand behavior change from our clients without allowing rebalancing of brain chemistry, we simply set them up for failure" ("Neuronutrient Therapy" by Doctor Terry Neher, Professional Counselor Magazine, Aug. 1993, p.53).

While I am certainly no authority on the complexities of brain function or mental illness, I have learned some principles for myself that might help others who are struggling with depression. In presenting the following I am not attempting to "practice medicine," or even to recommend what someone else should do, but merely to share what I have learned from my own experience. Please refer to the books, Ensign articles and websites I have referenced for additional and more credentialed information than I am qualified to offer.


HOW THE BRAIN WORKS

The physical brain is a collection of 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, and over a trillion support cells. These neurons, which make it possible to think, act and feel, are so tiny that they are only one hundredth the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The tentacles which come off the neurons are called dendrites, and the space between them is about one millionth of an inch. These spaces, or microscopic gaps, are called the synapses.

These 100 billion neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical discharges, or "messages," across the synapses, or gaps. But in order for that electrical message to cross a synapse, certain specialized brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, must travel across this space to trigger a response (chemical reaction) in the target neuron. We could call these neurotransmitters chemical messengers, because they carry every thought and instruction from neuron to neuron—and the brain's function is entirely dependent upon them.

There are hundreds of different neurotransmitter chemicals produced in the brain, and each chemical and transmitter has a different purpose. For example, many neurotransmitters simply carry messages that are received from bodily sensors, relating facts about the outside world, like incoming sounds, patterns of light, temperature, and so forth. Other neurotransmitters carry action messages, such as directing muscles when and how much to move. Still others assist in long-term and short-term memory.

However, there are about 75 neurotransmitters which are the major, controlling ones, which make it possible to think, reason and form conclusions. Some of the best-known neurotransmitters that affect mood and behavior are serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

Until I began my study of depression, I had never thought about the difference between the "mind" and the "brain." I learned that we do not think with the physical brain alone. It is helpful to think of the mind as that self-aware part of our eternal spirit that thinks and has consciousness, and to recognize that our brain is the physical part of our body that executes, or carries out the instructions of our conscious mind. Bruce R. McConkie said, "The sentient, conscious, and intelligent part of man – the part that perceives, feels, wills, and thinks – is called the mind" and "it is clear that the mind of man rests in the eternal spirit. Man’s intelligence is in his spirit and not in the natural or mortal body" (Mormon Doctrine, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 501).

This means that for every thought we have in our spirit mind, there exists a neurochemical equivalent in the physical brain. Thus, the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we act all happen because of chemical actions in the physical brain—which come in response to the thoughts and instructions coming from the spirit mind. These chemical reactions are dependent upon a complex balance of many separate molecules, working together with specialized brain cells, to communicate and act upon our thoughts, feelings and actions.

If that chemical process gets out of balance, so will our thought processes and emotions. In spite of our best intentions, life can become a nightmare. A depletion or imbalance of neurotransmitter chemicals may result in problems such as feelings of anxiety and depression; irritability and hostility; difficulty sleeping; low energy and chronic fatigue; anger and hopelessness; cravings and insecurity. Life will be confused, as mine was. Our problems, weaknesses and temptations may well seem overwhelming and beyond our capacity. This is one of the reasons that tens of millions of desperate people in America are being medicated with anti-depressant prescriptions—as I was for seventeen years. So let’s consider some of the things that can cause this to happen.


SOME CAUSES OF DEPRESSION

The causes of depression can range from an actual disease or medical malfunction in the brain, to more common things like an imbalance or depletion of essential neurotransmitters. If you feel that you may be suffering from depression, it would be wise to seek professional help in determining the cause and best treatment. However, there are certain fundamental roots to this problem that will be helpful to understand as you decide what to do.

Genetic Defaults: Abnormal neurochemistries can be inherited because of defective genetic factors. For example, extensive studies of the children of alcoholics have shown them to share deficiencies in certain neurotransmitters that can cause a predisposition for alcohol that is not experienced by others. Similarly, tendencies toward depression can actually "run in families," but most of the time it comes from things more within our control.

Bad Attitudes: Many times we simply talk ourselves into depression with self-defeating and negative thoughts. There are physical and scientific reasons for commandments and statements of principle like "Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad," (D&C 128:22) and "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine" (Proverbs 17:22). It is common knowledge that laughter and positive thoughts promote the production of beneficial hormones and brain function, while negative thoughts diminish them. One can easily cause oneself to have gloomy, depressive thoughts and feelings simply by focusing on the discouraging and unwanted circumstances in their life. But those kinds of mood swings, or "downers," usually pass as we regain control of our attitude.

Satanic Attacks: President Ezra Taft Benson warned of Satan’s role in some depressions: "We live, in an age when, as the Lord foretold, men’s hearts are failing them, not only physically but in spirit. (See D&C 45:26.) … As the showdown between good and evil approaches with its accompanying trials and tribulations, Satan is increasingly striving to overcome the Saints with despair, discouragement, despondency, and depression" ("Do Not Despair," Ensign, Oct. 1986, p. 2).

  • When discouragement weighs heavily, look around again. Recognize discouragement for what it is: one of Satan’s subtlest yet most devastating tools. He would convince us that we are unworthy of respect or affection, enticing us to wallow in the mire of self-pity. [Anne G. Osborn, Ensign, Mar. 1977, p. 49]
  • I am not suggesting that Satan can actually cause a clinical, chemical imbalance. I do not know if he is granted that power or not. But I do know, with absolute certainty, that he and his demons have become masters at using discouragement and depression as a weapon against us as they encourage negative thought patterns as they work to prolong our stress and unresolved problems.

    Overtaxing Ourselves: Just as one can "overdo" physically, the same thing can happen mentally and emotionally. We all know that there are limits to our physical strength and energy. There are also limits to our ability to focus mentally, or to endure painful emotions.

    Amazingly, the brain consumes about 20% of all the energy produced by the food we eat. Consequently, the thought patterns we indulge can affect the way we feel because the neurotransmitter chemicals are consumed by the brain just as fuel is consumed by a truck. If you require a truck to carry a heavy load up a steep hill, it will consume more fuel than it would on a level road. Similarly, the greater the stress in our lives, the greater the consumption of neurotransmitters in our fragile brain chemistry. That is why many people experience temporary bouts of depression when confronted with major stress events like loss of a job or a loved one.

    If we supply the body with proper nutrients, a normal and healthy brain will produce a sufficient and balanced supply of the amino acids that fuel the production of the neurotransmitter chemicals. But if the physical brain chemistry is overstressed for prolonged periods of time, we may deplete our neurotransmitters faster than they are replaced. This can cause a kind of communication gridlock within the brain, which starts a chain reaction of damaging effects. When this happens, we grow depressed and cannot experience thoughts and feelings the way we should. Its kind of like running out of gas, or having flat tires. Thus a prolonged stress of unresolved problems, like the thirty years of guilt, financial debt, marriage problems and hopelessness that we described in The Worth of Every Soul can lead to a serious chemical imbalance and depression. It is a natural physical response.

    Inadequate Nutrition: Another common problem in our society that puts all of us at risk is the reduction of nutrients in our food chain. This is due in part to "fast food" and poor eating habits, but also to the depletion of minerals in our soil, the use of pesticides and the preponderance of artificial and prepackaged foods. This is why many people have been able to restore a more normal brain chemistry and reduce or eliminate the symptoms of depression with natural supplements that promote a stronger production of the amino acids. For many people, this can be just as effective as the chemical prescriptions.


    NATURAL SUPPLEMENTATION OR MEDICAL PRESCRIPTION?

    When I first learned that there are natural alternatives to anti-depressant medications, I was afraid to let go of the pills and doctors that had propped me up for seventeen years. But I was growing increasingly stressed by the side effects of the medications and they were becoming increasingly ineffective, so I decided to take responsibility for my own health. I began searching medical journals and health publications for information about brain chemistry and depression. The more I learned, the more sense it made to me that just as we take supplements like Vitamin C and Echinacea to strengthen the immune system, proper nutrients could be taken to strengthen brain chemistry.

    One of the things that gave me courage to make the move to natural supplementation after I had depended upon medical drugs for seventeen years was a statement by President Ezra Taft Benson. "Food can affect the mind, and deficiencies in certain elements in the body can promote mental depression. In general, the more food we eat in its natural state and the less it is refined without additives, the healthier it will be for us" (In Conference Report, Oct. 1974, p. 91-92 or "Do Not Despair, Ensign, Oct. 1986. p 4). When one considers how far science has advanced since 1974, that was a remarkably insightful statement.

    There are now hundreds of "brain products" to choose from in Health Food stores, from Direct Marketing companies, (they don’t want you to call them MLMs anymore) and over the Internet. Some products focus on depression, some on anxiety, some on memory or ADD problems. There are thousands of Internet sites where one can investigate such things. Just type things like the following into your search engine:

    "brain supplements"
    "brain nutrition"
    "brain enhancement"
    depression + "natural supplementation"
    restores + "brain function"

    One of the published sources that strengthened my resolve to "go natural" was an article in Time magazine, called "Mood Altering Drugs." (See the September 1997 issue.)

    An even greater influence was the book: Prozac: Panacea or Pandora, by Doctor Ann Blake Tracy, PhD, the director of The International Coalition for Drug Awareness. (You will learn a lot about anti-depressant medications and their side effects by exploring their website at http://www.drugawareness.org/home.html).

    Doctor Tracy’s book is not exactly popular with traditional doctors or bookstores, but it can always be ordered direct from the publisher at 1-800-280-0730. You can learn about both her and the book at http://members.aol.com/atracyphd/.

    With the encouragement and guidance of a doctor, I replaced the prescription medication with natural supplements. (Don’t expect all doctors to agree with replacing medications with supplements.) Once those prescription chemicals were cleared from my system, and once I learned to balance the depression with food supplementation, life felt like Christmas again as I received major improvements in my memory, mental focus and emotional life. To my surprise, I discovered that I had been living numb for seventeen years. I discovered that while the medications had protected me from the plunges into negativity and hostility, they had also prevented me from experiencing normal feelings of joy and happiness. It was like coming out of a trance.

    NOTE: The doctor strongly cautioned me to cut down on my medications very slowly so that my body could wean itself of the chemicals and grow used to the supplements before I switched over totally. She said that dropping off the medications "cold turkey" can be bad for the system. You can review The International Coalition for Drug Awareness’s warnings on how to withdraw from such medications, plus lots of other important information at http://www.drugawareness.org/ICFDAwarning.html.

    I am so grateful for the revelations that have advanced medical science and for the rescue that anti-depressants gave me for those first seventeen years. But I am also grateful I did not have to stay on them for the rest of my life. I am grateful for scriptures that teach that, in many cases, we can treat ourselves with natural remedies God has provided to help keep our bodies healthy. (For example, see Alma 46:40; D&C 42:43; 89:10-11.)


    WHAT SUPPLEMENTS DID I USE?

    Treating depression is not simple. Brain chemistry is fragile and complex. It is probably unique to each individual. Just as one single optical prescription for eyeglasses will not correct everyone’s vision, no single medication or supplement can balance everyone’s brain chemistry. The only way a person can find a mood-altering medication or supplement that will work for them is to patiently give it a try and then let the body report back if it feels better. (This exploration is much like the optometrist who gives you a choice of dozens of differing lenses and then asks you to tell him which one helps you see the best.)

    Whether you put a doctor in charge of prescribing your medication or try to find the proper supplementation yourself, it usually takes weeks or months of trial to find the medication or supplement that will work best and then more time to determine the proper dosage.

    Out of the hundreds of products available through Health Food stores, Direct Marketing Companies and over the Internet, I personally have only used three products. I obtained good results from all of them. I have friends who have used them with results similar to mine. But I also have friends who tried them with no satisfactory results.

    The products were all purchased from Direct Marketing Companies and are not available, as far as I know, in retail outlets. I am not listing them here as a recommendation, but merely to share this tiny sample as a starting point in your own quest.

    "Neuro 911," which I purchased from a company called For Mor International in Conway, Arkansas. Their order line is 1-888-270-4793 and their website is www.formor.com.

    "Restores+AD," which I purchased from a company called Nature’s KI in Arlington, Texas. Their order line is 1-866-899-6290 and their website is www.natureski.com.

    "Noni Juice," which I purchased from a company called Tahitian Noni, in Provo, Utah. This product is not marketed specifically as a "brain supplement," but for me it seemed to promote the production of the amino acids so well that my mental focus and mood control improved and I was able to drop the brain supplements I had been taking. There were so many other health benefits that I was also able to stop taking a number of other products that had been necessary to maintain my health. (Don’t be enticed by the dozens of watered-down imitation Noni products.) Their order line is 1-800-445-2969 and their website is http://www.TahitianNoni.com.

    NOTE: To make discounted purchases from these companies, I had to be "sponsored" by one of their distributors. I have no interest in marketing such products, nor am I posting this information as a distributor. I ask that you respect our efforts to devote full time to Family History work. Please do not attempt to contact me for further advice or counsel on this subject.


    Articles from Church Magazines Dealing With Depression

    The articles listed below are available online at http://www.lds.org.
    First click on the Directory Topic of "Gospel Library."
    Then click on "Search the Data Base."
    Then click on "Magazines."
    This will give you access to the last thirty years of Church magazine articles.


    "Why Is My Wife (Or Husband) Depressed?" David G. Weight, Ensign, March 1990, 27-29

    "'Awake My Soul!': Dealing Firmly with Depression," Steve Gilliland, Ensign, Aug. 1978, 37-41

    "When Life Is Getting You Down," Val D. MacMurray, Ph.D., Ensign, June 1984, 56-60

    "Escaping My Valley of Sorrow," G. G. Vandagriff, Ensign, March 2000, 65-67

    "My Battle with Depression," Mollie H. Sorensen, Ensign, February 1984, 12-16

    "Rising Above the Blues," Shanna Ghaznavi, New Era, April 2002, 30-34

     

     


    2000 Steven A. Cramer
    All commercial rights reserved.

    However, please feel free to copy and share any of this material
    with anyone you feel may benefit from it.

    Steven Cramer's website:
    http://Cramer.SageGuide.Info