Depression is a debilitating mental illness, which affects millions of people globally. Depression is far more serious than simply feeling unhappy. We all get moments throughout our daily lives when things go wrong and cause us to feel temporarily sad. Depression runs far deeper within the psyche and lasts longer. It can affect anyone at any time and can prevent them from going to work or enjoying activities they once found enjoyable.
For around half of sufferers, depression is a one-time occurrence, each bout can take six months to a year to recover from. Many sufferers have sought natural alternatives to prescribed medications.
Below are seven natural ways to combat depression. However, these do not substitute for consulting with your physician, who is always the best person to advise you on mental illness. The methods given below can be used in combination with professional medical advice, and are not intended to replace it.
You might wonder how a cold shower can help with depression. Well, it’s less the effect of the flow and more about the thermal shock. In 2008, Nikolai A Shevchuk published an abstract detailing the results of a study where cold showers were given daily to patients. Each shower at a temperature of 68° F would last two to three minutes, with five minutes of adaptive cooling preceding. This protocol would be repeated for at least several weeks.
So what’s the hypothesis behind the study? Shevchuk believes that humans have evolved into a species less able to withstand thermal stress. Instead of enduring regular cold swims, modern man lives a more comfortable lifestyle. Centrally-heated homes offer little variation in temperature.
Shevchuk suggests that living in a constant temperature might cause some people to suffer depression. Because of their genetic make-up, some people suffer more from a lack of thermal stress. It’s known that exposure to cold increases the levels of certain neurotransmitters in the blood. One of these is the beta-endorphin, known to reduce pain and stress. Another is norepinephrine, which increases alertness and a desire for action. This positivity is the antithesis of depression, which is usually associated with low levels of motivation.
There’s another way a cold shower might help treat depression. When cold-sensitive skin receptors react to cold water, they send a massive onslaught of electrical impulses to the brain. Shevchuk proposes this reaction may help treat depression.
Sunshine and Vitamin D
Another valid way to combat depression is to spend more time outdoors, at least when the sun is shining. Too much sun exposure can be bad for you, putting you at risk of skin cancers, but the right amount can help elevate your moods. People suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) during the winter, have low levels of serotonin. Sunlight passing through the eye triggers serotonin, a hormone associated with higher moods and energy. There are other ways sunlight can elevate mood. UV light stimulates certain epidermal cells, called keratinocytes, to produce mood-enhancing beta-endorphins.
The most important benefit of sunlight comes from it being the prime source of Vitamin D. Sunlight provides 90% of an individual’s Vitamin D needs. The rest comes from foods such as oily fish. It’s the ultraviolet B radiation in sunlight, which photosynthesizes Vitamin D in the skin. While this vitamin plays a large role in bone health, a deficiency of it has also been linked to an increased risk of depression. The World Health Organization recommends 5 to 15 minutes of sun exposure two or three times a week to maintain healthy Vitamin D levels. Exposure after this requires the application of sunscreen to protect the individual from the adverse effects of UV light.
Vitamin D is a vital brain nutrient throughout life. It’s thought to reduce depression by boosting levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The presence of Vitamin D receptors in the hypothalamus region of the brain appears to support this hypothesis. There have been several studies carried out on the beneficial effects of Vitamin D on depression.
Another means of combating depression, which also has other health benefits, is regular exercise. Just 150 minutes of physical activity a week helps pump more blood to the brain. The remedial effects come from stimulating the production of beta-endorphins and serotonin. Regular exercise may also reduce chronic brain inflammation, which can be a cause of depression. It certainly spurs the growth of a protein called BDNF (brain-developed neurotrophic factor). BDNF helps nerve cells to grow and make new connections. Exercise also works by distracting the individual from negative thoughts.
Thirty minutes of moderate exercise per day is all you need to reap the most benefits. It’s important to choose physical activities you enjoy, and also to vary them so it doesn’t become too much of a chore. Start off gradually with shorter bouts, and consult your physician first if you haven’t exercised for a while.
Running, walking, swimming, gardening, and yoga are excellent ways to exercise. Some strength training is recommended too, such as multi-stage weightlifting exercises. These get your brain working harder, and in return, it becomes smarter and more motivated.
Supplements and Probiotics
There are many dietary supplements which can be taken to help stave off depression. You don’t need to take all the supplements given below; some might help you more than others. Always consult your physician before taking supplements, especially if you’re already on medication.
Vitamin D can help boost neurotransmitter activity if you’re not getting enough sunlight (see above). But also taking B-complex vitamins, such as B6 and B3, helps keep serotonin in your system for longer. The amino acid 5-hydroxytrytophan can be taken as a supplement, increasing the production of serotonin.
Another amino acid is theanine, which is found in green tea. Theanine triggers the release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This, in turn, promotes feel-good neurotransmitter activity.
For cases of mild depression, St. John’s Wort has been clinically proven to be an effective treatment.
Certain bacteria in the gut interact with the intestine’s own nervous system to release serotonin. These useful gut bacteria are known as probiotics. They have the potential to treat depression and anxiety. Another way probiotics are thought to work is by reducing chronic brain inflammation.
There’s a strong relationship between depression and sleep, or at least lack of sleep. It’s well known that sleep disorders arise because of depression, but less well known that they can precede the onset of depression. Loss of sleep causes a vicious cycle of fatigue and lethargy, which over time can lower mood. Most individuals need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
Research suggests sleep deprivation might be a cause of depression. With many people today exposing themselves to the LCD screens in phones and computers, loss of sleep has become a major issue. The artificial light suppresses the release of melatonin, a hormone in the brain vital for regulating sleep and waking.
Eating the Right Foods
While there’s no tailored diet for depression it’s believed that certain foods can help treat depression.
Turkey and tuna are two examples of protein-rich foods which can elevate your mood. Maybe this is why everyone feels good after their Thanksgiving dinner. Both these foods contain an amino acid which is essential for the synthesis of serotonin.
Finally, if you’re still feeling depressed, you should consider switching to a Mediterranean diet. It contains foods rich in Vitamin B12, and essential ingredients for producing the brain’s feel-good chemicals. The Mediterranean diet is plant-based, comprised of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Olive oil is used in place of butter.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Many people suffering from depression have found mindfulness and meditation to be of help. A recurring symptom of depression is a downward spiral of negative thoughts. It can be too easy to ruminate on the past, instead of letting it go. Try telling someone who is depressed that you can’t change the past.
Mindfulness is about awareness of the present moment. It’s about being enraptured through all five senses of a single moment. This opens the individual to present experiences and allows them to savor present thoughts and feelings.
Meditation is the usual method of achieving a state of mindfulness. The individual sits quietly with their eyes closed and concentrates on the rhythm of their breathing. Distracting thoughts are released into the air like little clouds. All that matters is the present moment.
MBCT is an official psychotherapy program to treat depression. It stands for mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and combines mindfulness equally with cognitive therapy. It has been shown to work among depressed patients, though medical practitioners are not sure why. Previous studies have either been flawed or inconclusive, and more research is needed. It’s believed though that MBCT helps relieve chronic brain inflammation. Unlike with medications, there are no side effects.