The primary difference between Allopathic (Western) Medicine and Holistic (Eastern) Medicine is that the former sees the body as weak and wishes to control nature while the later sees the body as strong, having the natural tendency towards being healthy, and looks to augment nature.
Allopathic physicians see disease as one of two different things happening in the body.
The first scenario is that there is an invader from the outside world that needs to be eradicated. An example of this would be when someone gets an infection. Our medical answer to this is to take an antibiotic to kill the invader. Another instance is with cancer… we look to remove the “invading” cells with surgery, or kill them with chemotherapy or radiation.
The second way in which allopathic medicine sees disease is that there is some sort of chemical imbalance in the body that needs to be balanced. An example of this would be an allergy. The Western viewpoint is that there is too much histamine in the body. The answer, then, would be to take an antihistamine. Another example would be diabetes… not enough insulin. So the solution would be to take insulin or a medicine that can make the cells more sensitive to insulin.
So how would Western medicine look at depression? As a chemical imbalance of the brain, of course. There are not enough of certain neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Following this logic, the solution would be to do something that will increase the amount of serotonin, which is what antidepressant drugs like Prozac or Zoloft do.
But what if we look at depression, and the associated brain chemistry imbalance, as a symptom of something else going on with the person? Is taking a drug that tries to balance the chemistry really helping in the long run? My answer is no!
If you are driving down the road in your car and the oil light illuminates, you have a couple of choices. You can take the car to the mechanic and find out why the light is on. Maybe you have an oil leak, maybe you have a faulty pump, or maybe the oil just needs to be changed. Either way, once the problem is fixed then the oil light will go off. Or, if you wanted to, you could open up the fuse box and remove the fuse, and the oil light would go off as well. Do you see the difference? One way is treating the underlying cause of the problem and the other way is making the symptom go away without fixing the problem. I see antidepressant therapy as doing just that, pulling the fuse so that the symptom goes away. Of course, the car is going to break down because eventually all the oil will be gone or so dirty that it no longer lubricates the engine.
I do feel that the use of antidepressant medicines with some people is necessary and warranted for a period of time. Often times, especially when in crisis, the potential immediate relief one can get from the use of prescription antidepressant medications is the best possible answer at that moment. But what happens too commonly in practice is that once a patient is on their Prozac (or whatever the antidepressant du jour happens to be) and stabilized, they remain on the drugs, sometimes for years and years. And what typically happens is that as times goes on, the dosage of a particular medicine has to be increased and eventually ceases to “work” altogether and other medications need to be used.
As far as I’m concerned, depression is a symptom of other things going on, things that are usually emotional and spiritual in nature. It’s a way that our body talks to us, a way that is hard to ignore. When life is no longer fun, when it seems impossible to get out of bed in the morning, when everything seems to be going wrong, you can’t ignore it. You must pay attention. It is my contention that our bodies are always “talking” to us. But we learn very early in life to ignore the messages. Or we learn to numb ourselves by using sugar, or alcohol, or drugs (both illicit and prescription), or television, or nicotine, or countless other substances so that we don’t “hear” the message. And the net result is that eventually our bodies find a way to communicate in a manner that can’t be ignored. Depression is one of those ways. Taking antidepressant medications, or herbal or nutritional “antidepressants” for that matter, are just other ways to “turn down the volume” instead of listening to what the body is trying to tell us.
Taking St. John’s Wort or Sam-e or L-5 HTP may be very helpful in the short term, both in feeling better and getting the vital energy needed to do the really hard, really necessary work to make the depression go away for good. Proper counseling, with someone who can create a safe, loving, non-judgmental environment, in which to delve into the deeper recesses of our minds and emotions is one way to begin the work. Some sort of quiet, contemplative practice, such as meditation or yoga, can also be an excellent first step.
Don’t confuse depression with feeling lousy or blue for known reasons. I recently had a patient tell me a story about when his wife died. She was in her 50’s and she died of a debilitating lung disease. Her downturn was rather sudden and within a few months she was gone. This gentlemen’s doctor recommended he start talking Prozac for his “depression”. He refused, worked through his understandable grief, and was able to get on with his life. His comment to me was “I didn’t want to numb myself to the pain and grief I was going through only to have to face it later on in life, and probably multiplied at the later time.”
My viewpoint on depression most of the time, as with almost all chronic diseases, is that it really is a symptom of deeper issues and our body is telling us to pay attention to something… some feeling, some unhealthy response to the stress of past or current events, some thought pattern repeating itself over and over… and not just a Prozac, or even St. John’s Wort, deficiency.