Depression is one of the most misdiagnosed mental illnesses in the Western world. An estimated 350 million people suffer from depression worldwide (1). While most of us have not been exempt from the blues, depression and sadness are far from the same.
What Is It?
Depression is a complex disorder; characterized by low mood, aversion towards usual activites, low energy, disturbed sleep and negative, warped thinking.
It can affect anyone—even a person who appears to live in relatively ideal circumstances. Depression distorts how sufferers think, feel and function.
Symptoms vary from mild to severe and can include:
- Feeling sad, empty or having a low mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Weight loss or gain
- Difficulty sleeping or over-sleeping
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in restless activity or slowed movements
- Feelings of worthless or guilt
- Trouble thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Reoccurring thoughts of death or suicide (2).
Essentially, the word depression is a blanket term for a number of different “depressive” mood disorders, ranging from major depressive disorder to dysthymia to premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) in women.
There is no sole cause and anyone who has experienced depression could vouch that it is not something one can simply, “just get over”. A myriad of physical and psychological factors contribute to the onset; genetic predisposition, environment, changes in hormones, poor lifestyle, misusing drugs and alcohol, stressful life events or even illness.
Depression is commonly attributed to physiological changes but, it’s unknown whether altered levels of neurotransmitters cause the development of depression or depression causes changes in neurotransmitters. Regardless, depression is typically associated with low serotonin and high cortisol levels.
Serotonin is an organic compound found in the brain, blood serum and gastric mucous membranes. In the brain, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that boosts mood, aids in sleep and contributes to digestion. Meanwhile, cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands to assist our body’s reaction to stressful events.
Depression has the potential to consume and debilitate sufferers. Climbing out of the black hole may feel impossible without prescription drugs. Depending on the individual, anti-depressants may be a necessary and helpful part of recovery, so always consult with a doctor if you have the option.
Many people are reluctant to seek treatment due to social conditioning and the societal stigma associated with mental illness. The more society wakes up to this pernicious disorder, the quicker the stigma dissipates. Talking about depression is healthy; repressing and numbing your feelings is quite the opposite.
What Can I Do?
The good news is that there are a number of simple and natural ways to help alleviate depression! I’m not a doctor and what works for one person, may not work for everyone. What I want to share are things that have worked for me. As with all aspects of physical and mental health, healing begins with a truly healthy, nutrition-packed diet and exercise.
Enhance Your Diet
One of the best tools to alleviate depression is proper nutrition. No, you can’t ‘eat’ your way out of depression. Diet is just one facet of natural treatment. Aside from knowing that you may be “eating your feelings,” keep in mind that you are “feeling what you eat.” Organic fruits and vegetables are rich in phytochemicals, enzymes and vitamins that repair damaged cells and tissues (this includes brain cells). A healthy mind thrives in a healthy body.
Here’s What to Eat:
– Eating a diet rich in dark leafy greens, vegetables, fruits and healthy fats has been connected to decreased depression.
– Dark leafy greens such as swiss chard, spinach, collard greens and kale are nutrient dense and particularly rich in magnesium and B-vitamins!
– Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as oily fish, nuts, flaxseed oil, and legumes are also effective against depression.
Here’s What to Limit:
– Regular consumption of refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and rice have been linked to low mood and poor health, as they provide little nutritional value and create hormonal imbalance in the body.
– Hyperpalatable foods – those loaded with salt, sugar, additives and trans-fats – may even alter the chemical pathways involved in happiness!
– Decrease your intake of refined grains, processed foods and sugar to balance insulin (“sugar regulating hormone”) and leptin (“satiety hormone”) levels.
– Avoid all artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, MSG, trans-fats, and GMOs for mental clarity and energy.
Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and any perceived benefits are short lived. If anything alcohol consumption exasperates fatigue, low mood and poor overall health. Caffeine may also perpetuate anxious feelings and disordered sleep.
Working out has a profound positive effect on one’s mental health. Ample research suggests that exercise relieves stress, improves memory, improves sleeping patterns, and boosts overall mood. Regular exercise causes changes in the brain that affect neural growth and promotes feelings of calm and boosts mood. Exercising also releases powerful neuropeptides called endorphins that enhance feelings of well-being and euphoria! Physical activity also serves as a distraction from problems, which helps break from the perpetual cycle of negative thinking that feeds depression. Also, exercise provides a sense of structure and achievement.
Fake It Till You Make It
Smile: whether it feels forced or phony. Literally, force yourself to find something positive in each day or about yourself. Write it down. Start a gratitude journal. Retrain yourself. Ask yourself, “What is the depression telling me about myself and my life right now? Is it a warning sign? Remind yourself that it’s impossible to rewire your brains neuro circuit without changing your mental habits and thinking. It’s called “faking it” for a reason; do it for YOU!
Optimize Your Supplements
A healthy, diverse diet that includes plenty of vegetables, legumes, and protein should provide all of the vitamins the body needs. Sometimes our metabolism may be compromised or our diet lacks these essential nutrients, particularly those following a vegan diet, so supplementation is a necessity.
B-Vitamins are essential for a myriads of bodily functions. Deficiencies in B3, B5, B6, B7, or B12 are linked to depression. Daily supplementation can stabilize mood, decrease irritability, and improve quality of sleep.
5-Hydroxytryptophan is another natural alternative to prescribed antidepressants. When your body creates serotonin, it first makes 5-HTP. When taken as a supplement, 5-HTP is converted by your body into serotonin. Keeping a balanced level of serotonin from supplements like 5-HTPmay significantly improve mood and alleviate depression! If you are currently on an anti-depressant, speak with your doctor before taking 5-HTP.
A lack of Omega-3 fatty acids are a common suspect for physical causes of depression. Fish oil is a rich source of two essential omega-3 fatty acids; EPA and DHA. Research has linked low levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) to a number of mental and emotional disorders.
The original “chill pill” helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function. Ample magnesium is necessary in order to prevent magnesium deficiency, which may cause symptoms such as insomnia, irritability, and even depression. Like vitamin B6, Magnesium helps produce neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
Studies link vitamin D deficiencies to depression. Research published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology suggests that treatment of vitamin D deficiency in those with depression may be an easy and cost-effective therapy (3).
Meditation empowers those practicing to become aware of their thoughts and emotions. This awareness allows us to shift our mental states in a positive way. With regular practice of various breathing techniques, chanting and guided visualizations, people can detach from the cycle of distorted thinking that feeds depression. These practices allow one to feel more in control over their mental state. On a deeper level, it helps forge a spiritual connection that may help many connect with and heal their inner selves.
As you can see, we all have access to natural tools that help alleviate depression. We are so much more than our thoughts and emotions, never forget that you are NOT powerless to depression!