A Simple Fix For Depression?

Do you get annoyed with headlines that lead you to believe there is a simple solution to some problem with which you are wrestling? I know it irritates me…. And I bet it bothers you as well.

This happens frequently in media reports of “remarkable cures” for medical and psychological problems.  Today we are going to look at an example of a miracle “cure” for depression. Spoiler alert: The take away message is DO YOUR OWN QUICK RESEARCH when reading headlines that seem too good to be true.  

The example I will use is the reporting done on some research that took place last year. The research generated nearly a million page views on the internet. Impressive.

Here is what happened.

Emily Tarleton, a graduate student and researcher at the University of Vermont looked at whether taking magnesium supplements had any impact on depression. She was able to get approximately 120 mildly/moderately depressed adults to be in her study. Half of the group took 248mg of magnesium chloride each day for six weeks. The other half did not. A questionnaire was used to measure levels of depression. The change in depression scores at the end of six weeks was the measure of improvement (the greater the difference, the more depression had lowered). At the end of the six weeks the group that had not received magnesium chloride began to take the supplement on a daily basis. At the end of the next six weeks the improvement of this group was also measured.

The findings were that each group experienced significantly lower depression scores at the end of six weeks of magnesium supplementation.

Does that make sense so far? A nice study that certainly suggests that magnesium may be helpful in reducing depressive symptoms in a fairly short time. Does the study suggest that the depressive symptoms went away altogether? No.

Does the study suggest that magnesium works better than standard medication? No, there was no comparison group of depressed people who were started on an antidepressant.

Does the study suggest that magnesium works better than a placebo (for example, a sugar pill)? No, there was no placebo group to compare.

All of this is understandable. No study is perfect, and this was a graduate student who very likely was trying to do research on a slim budget. It’s a nice little study on an important topic.

Ms. Tarleton did a good job of using the data of 120 people (give or take) to raise interest in the role of magnesium in treating depression. She was, I want to point out, very modest about what the results meant… mainly that this looks promising and more research is needed.

Now, let’s look at what the popular media reported about the study.  From Reader's Digest:

This Mineral Fights Depression—and It’s Cheaper and Safer Than Prescription Drugs

Not a bad headline really. But the writer goes on to misstate what the study found. “Ultimately, Tarleton’s findings suggest that the effects of magnesium are just as beneficial for depression sufferers as prescription antidepressants such as Prozac.” 

Really? We should draw this conclusion even though no comparison Prozac group was in the study? That’s a stretch.

Another outlet breathlessly proclaimed:

Magnesium found to treat DEPRESSION better than antidepressant drugs: New science”

Again, an odd way to sum up a study that did not include an antidepressant comparison group.

Then there is this…

Magnesium in Right Doses Completely Reverses Depression: Breakthrough Study

It is a little baffling. The author did not state that her study showed that “magnesium completely reverses depression.” She did point out that the group taking magnesium showed a meaningful reduction in symptoms of depression. Completely reversed depression? It would have been great had there been such evidence, but that is not case.

Is magnesium helpful to people who struggle with depression? The study we looked at suggests it might be. There are other studies that also would lead me to conclude that magnesium supplementation is a promising method for reducing depression in some people.

Emphasis on “promising” and “some people.”

But the headlines would lead you to a very different conclusion. A conclusion that might lead to you and me to have unrealistic expectations, disappointment, or perhaps even down the path of forgoing more proven effective treatments for depression (such as talk therapy, life style changes, and medication).

Conclusion We need to approach health related articles in the popular media with some caution. Neither disregarding them altogether, nor immediately accepting them at face value. Just taking a few minutes to look at the original source will often help make things much more clear.

I wonder whether there is anything you have read recently where this advice might be helpful?