I’ve spoken to you about many aspects of physical fitness in my newsletter articles. This time, though, I’d like to speak with you about your mental fitness – the health of your mind and psyche – especially if you’re a middle-aged Boomer. You’re of the age that research statistics say carries a much higher risk of depression – and suicide – especially men.
According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, prescriptions of ‘psychotherapeutics’ (antidepressants, etc) were one of the most commonly used drugs amongst people age 50 and over. I’d like to share some research that may change your mind about using Rx antidepressants and try natural remedies first. Here’s what I’ve learned…
Why That Rx “Happy Pill” Can Make You Feel Worse
Speaking about depression and its offshoots, sexual dysfunction, emotional numbness, even suicide, are uncomfortable subjects for doctors to broach with their patients. So, many medical doctors shy away from asking their patients about their ‘mental fitness’ and focus only on their physical health. The Mayo Clinic has raised concerns, and I agree, that doctors and other health care professionals should be paying more attention to their middle-age patient’s mental fitness. Especially with statistics like this:
A few months back in 2013, the NY Times reported (Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in the U.S) that suicide rates amongst middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the last 10 years. The most significant increases were seen in middle-aged men with the rates jumping to 50%. Middle-aged women, 60-64, also had higher rates.
While there are several reasons why people in this age group may become depressed enough to turn to suicide – new research out of the University of Liverpool shows one of them may be taking antidepressants themselves.
The study (Psychological Side Effects of Anti-Depressants Worse Than Thought, February 2014) recently reported that people who took antidepressants had more thoughts of suicide, sexual dysfunction, and emotional numbness. Although physical side effects of antidepressants has been well-documented in the past – weight gain and nausea – many researchers have overlooked, ignored or denied, the mental side effects of these drugs. And worse, the researchers noted, people were not told about the possible psychological effects of these drugs before taking them.
An earlier study out of McMaster University in Toronto (Antidepressants Likely Do More Harm Than Good, April 2012) also concluded that antidepressants have been shown to do you more harm than good both mentally and physically. They found that antidepressants could interfere with all your bodily functions regulated by the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin. The McMaster researchers cautioned that ‘we need to be more cautious in the widespread use of these drugs’.
Antidepressants are supposed to fight depression/low mood by increasing serotonin – however, the manipulation of this delicate brain chemical stops helping and starts hindering after the “honeymoon period” of taking the pill is over. Even more surprising is the conclusion reached by a psychologist, Irving Kirsch, based on the FDA’s own studies on antidepressants, that placebos are 82% as effective in helping depression as antidepressants!
In the Liverpool study, 1,869 people who took antidepressants were studied. The researchers found that over half of the participants reported problems thought due to their medication. Even though the participants in the Liverpool study were mostly younger than middle age, the mental and physical side effects of antidepressants can be even more pronounced in people over 50. Here’s why…
When you’re older, your metabolism is slower and drugs stay circulating in your blood stream longer. Your sensitivity to all kinds of substances, including alcohol, over-the-counter as well as prescription medications, increases. In addition, many middle-aged people are also using alcohol, marijuana, and opioids (painkillers) along with antidepressants, says a survey presented at the California Society of Addiction Medicine conference in late 2013.
As a result, the potential risk for fatal overdose is high. Clearly, handing out antidepressant pills like they’re candy is not the most effective, long-term way to deal with depression and sadness in any age group. So what helps?
Natural Ways to Deal with Depression
People often turn to prescription antidepressants much too quickly before they’ve even tried a natural route of lifting their mood. The following suggestions have been shown to improve depression and low moods – especially in middle-aged-to-older people:
1. Hormone balancing. Many middle-aged men and women start having mood disorders about the same time menopause and andropause begin around age 50. It can negatively impact many areas of your life – relationships, work, and friends. Mayo Clinic research reports that testosterone decreases in men 1% per year from the age of 30 on. That means by age 60, they’ve lost 1/3 of their stores, which can create profound symptoms in some men. Many men never associate their low moods/sadness/anxiety/irritability/anger outbursts/insomnia with testosterone decrease. At the same time, other body-function symptoms like hair loss, weight gain; erectile dysfunction can aggravate the depression. Same with women, the decrease of estrogen with menopause can create dramatic mood swings as well as body appearance and function changes that can worsen depression. Wrinkles, gray hair, sagging facial skin, as well as dyspareunia (painful intercourse) from vaginal tissue changes, can aggravate depression. Ask your doctor if hormone balancing could help your depression.
2. Exercise. Exercise can really boost your moods by naturally increasing serotonin levels in your brain. It helps your body produce more of your own rather than adding a synthetic chemical version of it that can throw your natural function out of whack. Exercise also reduces the stress hormone cortisol that not only makes your moods bounce up and down but it can cause you to put on a lot of belly fat and worsen your self-image and depression. According to Mayo Clinic research, exercise helps reduce anxiety by relaxing you. The best exercise to relieve depression is a vigorous aerobic workout 3-4 times a week as well as resistance training to maintain muscle strength. Exercising with a friend, your spouse, or joining an exercise group at your local gym, can help fight depression that loneliness and isolation contribute to.
3. Social life. Life changes that can start around middle age can cause, or aggravate already existing, depression. Kids have grown and gone, you may have become a grandparent, divorce, death of a spouse, retirement, job loss, illness, can all open the door to depression. Studies show that the best way to fight depression associated with middle age life change issues is to try and maintain your social connections with friends and family as much as possible. Get counseling or join a support group to help you deal with your losses, or just talk frequently with a friend; connect with your neighbors more; join a fun-focused activity group once a week/month; do volunteer work, pursue your hobbies; go back to school and learn something new; or even go back to work to help make new social connections and fight isolation-based depression.
Depression is a serious condition, one that all of us need to take seriously when we see it in our friends and family. Life changes that start to occur in middle age can leave many people reeling and not knowing where to turn for help. I feel that masking the underlying issues by taking “happy pill” antidepressants can eventually worsen your symptoms and perhaps lead to fatal outcomes. If you’re feeling depressed from whatever reason, talk to your doctor about it but do try some of the natural methods of relieving depression first before you consider antidepressants.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.