Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Healing From Depression. The 6 Proven, Non-Medication Ways That Are As Effective as Antidepressants (We Should All Be Doing This!)

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Depression steals people. So far, despite the colossal investment of resources, there is still no reliably effective treatment. What we know for sure is that antidepressants just aren’t working. According to Dr Stephen Ilardi, respected psychologist, university professor and author of ‘The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs’, antidepressants only have about a 50% success rate. Out of the people who do find relief, half of them will relapse, taking the actual recovery rate to 25%. Then there are the side effects, such as emotional blunting, weight gain and sexual dysfunction.

When antidepressants fail to deliver, the hopelessness that lies at the heart of depression becomes even more brutal. If we could immunise ourselves and the people we love against depression, we’d be lining up. There is no immunisation, but a growing body of research is finding that there are ways to protect ourselves from depression and alleviate any existing symptoms, particularly for mild to moderate depression.

It’s about certain lifestyle factors – six of them – and the difference they can make to each of us, depressed or otherwise, is phenomenal. The claims may sound extravagant, but science is proving them over and over. The evidence is too compelling for us not to take notice. 

The Depression Epidemic: Our Stone Age Brains

There is an undeniable connection between lifestyle and depression. A modern lifestyle is making us sick. The more modern a society, and the more removed it is from the primitive hunter-gatherer way of life, the higher its rate of depression. Our world has changed phenomenally and our lifestyles have changed along with it, but our brains have hardly changed at all. They remain remarkably similar to the ones that powered people in the Stone Age when sleep was abundant, food was nutritious, and people wandered in groups, constantly on the move in the sunshine.

Our Stone Age brains just weren’t designed to handle the sedentary, isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, fast-food-laden, stressed-out pace of twenty-first-century life.-Dr Stephen Ilardi

Our brains are beautifully crafted to support Stone Age bodies that live Stone Age lives. When Stone Age brains are forced to live a modern lifestyle, the effect can be devastating. The brain and the body become depleted of the very things that have been fuelling them for thousands of years before now.

In the parts of the world where hunter-gatherer tribes lead similar lives to their Stone Age ancestors, their levels of depression are almost zero. They get plenty of sleep, physical activity and sunlight. They have plenty of distractions to keep them from being trapped in their heads by endless negative thoughts, they have a diet that is rich in omega-3, and their social connectivity is vast. According to Ilardi, these have a much more powerful effect on the brain than any medication.

How Can We Keep Our Stone Age Brain Happy?

Brains can change, and we have the capacity to change them. The key is finding the most effective ways to do that. Enter neuroscience. The chemistry of our brain is very responsive to what we do – for better or worse. Depending on the choices we make, we can deplete it or enrich it.

In preliminary clinical trials comparing the effect of lifestyle changes against antidepressants, researchers found that lifestyle choices brought about a reduction in depressive symptoms almost three times that experienced by the antidepressant group. There are six primary lifestyle factors that have been proven to protect the brain against depression and reduce depressive symptoms and Ilardi details them in his book, The Depression Cure. Interestingly, these lifestyle factors are remarkably close to the way we would have been doing things had we been living in the Stone Age.

  1. What we eat. Let it be plenty of omega-3.

    Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for the construction of brain cells and the insulation of nerve fibers. Many of the fat molecules needed by the brain are made by the body, but there are some that can only be drawn from our diet. Some of the best sources are fish (such as salmon), wild game, grass-fed beef, nuts, seeds, and leafy vegetables. It’s no co-incidence then, that Stone Age people consumed five to ten times more omega-3 fat than we do. It’s also no co-incidence that the lowest rates of depression are found in countries with the highest levels of omega-3 in their diets. Plenty of research has confirmed a link between omega-3 and depression – people with depression have lower levels of omega-3 and consuming omega-3 reduces the symptoms of depression.

    Omega-3 does beautiful things to the brain – we know that – but there is something we are eating more and more of, that is hurting it – sugar. (I know. That sort of ruined my day too.) Sugar is so addictive – it lights up the brains reward circuitry in a similar way to cocaine. The problem is that it activates the release of powerful inflammatory hormones that causes all sorts of trouble in the brain. Sugar also suppresses the activity of BDNF, a growth hormone that is vital for the health and happy firing of neurons in the brain. People with depression have critically low levels of BDNF.

     What to do:
    The greatest benefit is to be found in omega-3 rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), specifically omega-3 comprised of at least 60% EPA. This type of omega-3 is found in fish and shellfish. Ilardi suggests 1500mg of omega-3 daily (in the form of fish oil capsules), with a multivitamin and an antioxidant, such as 500mg vitamin C. Check with a pharmacist or doctor if you have any doubts or questions.

  2. What we think about.

    Thoughts influence the brain. A proven risk factor for depression is rumination – dwelling on negative thoughts over and over. Rumination causes physical changes in the brain. When we keep circling around negative thoughts, the brain’s stress circuitry steps up. Cortisol (the stress hormone) attacks the neurons in the hippocampus, which is where memories and emotions are dealt with. People with depression have been shown to have a smaller hippocampus, one of the effects of ruminative stress on the brain.

    What to do:
    The greatest risk factor for rumination is spending time alone. Being with people or doing an activity are powerful ways to break up a negative thought cycle. Depression is exhausting though, and sometimes being with people will be the last thing a depressed person feels like. Just know that it makes a difference – a big one. If depression has you in its clutches, it’s likely that you will have trouble finding the joy in anything. If that’s the case, think about what you used to enjoy and force yourself to do it. Think of it like medicine or brushing your teeth – it’s just something you have to do. It will be worth it. Interrupting rumination by ‘doing’ is called behavioural activation. It has been proven to be as effective as antidepressants and more effective than cognitive therapy in alleviating the symptoms of depression. Its healing power doesn’t end there. Behavioural activation has been shown to prevent relapse over a two year period as effectively as antidepressants or cognitive therapy.

  3. People time. Spend it with the ones who matter.

    According to Ilardi, when someone is depressed the brain mistakenly interprets that pain as an infection. It then tries to protect the person by sending a message for them to isolate themselves until the pain goes away. The effects of this can be catastrophic because isolation encourages toxic rumination. Human contact is powerful. It can ease the symptoms of depression, and protect against them.  

    What to do. 
    Spend regular time with people who care about you. If your tribe is looking a bit sparse, force yourself to join a group – anything where there are people – a book club, an art group, an exercise group, a drama group … anything. You might not feel like it but it will make a difference. People were meant to be with people. Just make sure they are people who deserve you.

  4. What we do. Exercise.

    Exercise changes the brain and is one of the most under-utilised anti-depressants. Our brains were never meant for sedentary lifestyles. Whenever we are active, key neurochemicals (including serotonin, the neurochemical targeted by antidepressants) set to work throughout the brain, elevating mood, motivation and energy levels. Exercise also elevates the brain’s production of BDNF, the key growth hormone we talked about earlier. During depression levels of BDNF plummet and cause the brain to shrink over time, making learning and memory more difficult. Exercise reverses this. Research that compared the effect of a popular anti-depressant (Zoloft) with the effect of exercise on depression found that 30 minutes of brisk walking 3 times per week was every bit as effective as the medication. Exercise also seemed to have a protective function that the antidepressants seemed to lack. Twelve months after the study, the participants who kept exercising were more likely to have kept their depression at bay. Medication didn’t seem to show this effect. 

    Exercise is medicine … It enhances brain function as powerfully as any medication.Dr Stephen Ilardi

    What to do.
    Try for at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week, but of course, if you can do more, go for it. Anything that gets your heart beating is perfect – a hurried walk, running, dancing, bike-riding, swimming – anything. It doesn’t have to be graceful or strong or beautiful to watch – it just has to be active.

  5. Get plenty of safe sunlight

    Sunlight sets off an avalanche of activity in our brain. It does this through receptors in the retina that are connected to the circuitry deep inside the brain that takes care of our body-clock. These are circuits that look after sleep, appetite and arousal. For millions of people, when the days become short the lack of sunlight unleashes chaos in our sunlight-loving brains. This can cause seasonal affective disorder (‘SAD’) which is debilitating and painful, and remarkably, up to 30% of us can show symptoms. SAD can happen to anyone who is chronically deprived of sunlight, because of the impact on serotonin. The power of sunlight isn’t only protective. It also has a remarkable capacity to heal the symptoms of depression. Research has found that light therapy is an effective, stand-alone treatment for depression, having an effect similar to most antidepressant medications.

    What to do.

    Try for 15-30 minutes of safe sunlight each morning. If it’s not easy to get some rays, try a lightbox, which is able to simulate the effect of sunlight on the brain and create the same protection against depression.

  6. Pillow time. Blissful, restful abundant pillow time.

    Yes. I know you know this one, but despite knowing how important sleep is, so many of us remain chronically sleep-starved. We need at least eight hours – as eight hours every single day. Sleep is like a superpower. It really is that good and that important to mood and mental health.

    Disrupted sleep is one of the most potent triggers of depression, and there’s evidence that most episodes of mood disorder are preceded by at least several weeks of sub-par slumber. -Dr Stephen Ilardi

What to do.
Aim for at least eight hours every night. Set your bedroom up so it’s conducive to restful sleep. Make sure it’s dark, minimise the light from appliances and iThings as much as you can. If you struggle to fall asleep, try a warm shower before bed and spray lavender into the room before you settle. 

But remember …

If you are already on medication, it is critical that you don’t stop it suddenly. Coming off anti-depressants should always be done in close consultation with a doctor to avoid withdrawal symptoms (such as a worsening of depression) that can happen when medication is stopped too quickly. Sometimes, particularly for more severe depression, medication is important to bring relief to symptoms but again, they won’t work for everyone. When medication does bring relief, using the lifestyle factors in conjunction with medication is a way to potentially strengthen mental and physical health even further.

Depression doesn’t always happen in isolation and can sometimes be triggered by medical conditions such as diabetes, sleep apnea, thyroid disorder, heart disease, chronic infection and hormonal imbalance – to name a few. In these cases, it will be hard to shift the depression until the underlying medical issues are dealt with.

Depression can also come about in response to other medication, but your doctor will be able to support you on this.

And finally ….

The six lifestyle choices are something that will make a difference for all of us, not just those with depression. We were born to thrive and for that, we need to take our cue from our Stone Age relatives. They were the pioneers of the human brain and their lifestyle was perfect for making it thrive. Our circumstances have changed – a lot. We no longer need to wander the sunny plains in search of food, and we don’t snuggle up with a tribe of relatives in front of a campfire every night, but our brains have stayed remarkably unchanged.

The human brain still craves the things that were ‘everyday’ in the Stone Age. We don’t want to go back to scouring the land for food, fighting wild animals and living with a tribe of relatives, and we don’t have to. Careful and consistent research has isolated the parts we need to keep, and the parts we can leave thousands of years behind us. If we tweak the way we live, we will see a profound difference – on our quality of life, our mood, our physical and mental health, our relationships and our lives. 

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33 Comments

tina

Thank you so much. Im bipolar 2 and in a horrible low now. I will pt these things into practice. I really didnt know that exercise could help my brain and mental illness like this.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Tina. And yes – the research on exercise and mental health is phenomenal. The main reason I exercise is for my mental health – it makes such a difference!

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Anechidna

Excellent.

But of course there are many who think the only solution comes out of the bottle or packet in tablet form.

Exercise and sunlight plus diet etc are all important. But like the belief of where the solution can be found many refuse to see the benefits of these simple actions or acknowledge that their food contains a vast number of substances that the human body hasn’t evolved to handle and that can and do cause us issues.

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Helen

Excellent advice. For many of us who live with chronic major depression, these lifestyle structures assist in supporting our medication to allow us to live fulfilling, regular lives. Without both healthy lifestyle structure and medication, we wouldn’t be able to function effectively on a daily basis.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, there is certainly a place for medication and adding in these lifestyle factors can be really important to support the healing. Thank you for sharing your experience of this.

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Susan Gisella Ilona Barr

Very interesting reading. Thank you for the great articles, especially on depression and natural ways to manage depression. It would also be interesting to see how meditation, and transcendental meditation in the mix of the healthy therapeutic lifestyle, would have on the condition. I would love to see the results. Thank you for the great reading! Suzy!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Suzy. I’m not sure about transcental meditation, but there has been a lot of research attesting to the the effectiveness of mindfulness on the symptoms of depression, particularly that in the mild to moderate range. Here is one study that found mindfulness was a way to prevent relapse in depression http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-as-effective-as-medication-in-preventing-relapse-in-depression/. There is a lot of research happening around depression and mindfulness meditation in particular, so it will be really interesting to see where it leads.

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Leah

Great article, thank you for sharing this information. How can I effectively communicate and encourage my 12 year old son to develop these habits?

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Hey Sigmund

Oh I know how tricky this part can be! Explain to your son that he can change his brain and make it stronger. This can be a really powerful thing that a lot of kids (and adults) don’t realise. Then, explain over a few different conversations (you don’t want to bombard him with information) the things that will make a difference. Talk about fish (particularly salmon) as brain food and get him involved with cooking it. Explain how when he sleeps, his brain works on making his memories and the things he has learned stronger, then have some rules around sleep – bedtime and when devices go off. There will come a point where you won’t have a lot of control over his sleep timing because his body clock will be different, and also you might find that being awake later at night will become important if it’s when he studies better. When he goes to bed, make sure he isn’t tempted to look at a phone, iPad or computer from bed – the light from these devices can interfere with the hormones that look after his sleep timing, making it harder for him to fall asleep. In relation to exercise, talk to him about what might be fun for him. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as he is moving and being active, whether it’s kicking a ball, walking a dog, riding a bike, indoor rock climbing – anything. As much as you can, get him involved in finding ways to do these things. Above everything though, the most important thing to do is to model these things, so make sure you’re doing all of these things as much as you can. As he gets older, he will have more of a mind of his own on these things, which is very normal. Do what you can, and then leave it to him. He might not take everything on straight away and that’s completely okay. If he grows up watching the way you do these things, and if you are open to hearing from him the ways that would work best for him (in terms of exercise, eating etc) then you’re definitely on the right track.

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Sue Murray-Wilson

This article has really helped clarify for me what works best to keep the light and energy up. Thank you from the bottom of my heart…I so nheeded to read this.

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Meggi

My mom sent this to me and I’m ever so happy I took the time to read it. A lot of these steps were lifestyle choices I’ve heard of time and time again, and I appreciated the reminder. Especially omega 3 and the sunlight. I just moved my omega 3 liquid to a spot where it stares me in the face every morning. What I found most interesting about this article was our brains climatic similarity to our stone age relatives. I personally find modern society encourages sitting at home alone and using our tech devices as a means to *socialize*. Although technology is an amazing invention, Facebook and Twitter can be such a negative thing for a person who suffers from depression and encourages the negative thinking you spoke about. I find the simpler things In life are things we desperately need to prove our existence worthwhile. Cooking a meal, having a good chat and going for a walk. I’ve suffered for a long time but the biggest thing I’ve learned is when your feeling awful and the negative thoughts are all consuming , kindly yet off your rear and do something. Something that makes you feel good. Something that makes you feel loved. Sorry for the novel, but was that inspired by the article and the responses, that I felt inclined to pour out my feelings. Thank you so much

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Hey Sigmund

Meggi I love that you have shared this! It sounds as though you have intuitively found the things that work for you. There’s a really good reason they work.

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Marge

I have had medium to major depression for most of my life. The past 10 years, more major. I’ve had two hospitalizations, have tried every med, meditation (seems to make it worse), excersise at least 4 times a week not including the obsessive cleaning every day, take tons of vitamens, socialize, you name it. I cannot seem to stop ruminating. I can feel the depression most of the time and now nightly nightmares that make it even more painful. Any suggestions?

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Michael

Thank You Karen so much these articles are very helpful and motivational.
God Bless you for all you do!!!!!

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Jasmin Beck

This is the article I have been waiting for.
Thank you so much as meds have always, for me, had unbelievable side -effects .
Fortunately my current psychiatrist is tending towards this, but we both know that if I have an acute episode of bi-polar, it will necessitate medication and or hospitalization.
Please keep your fingers crossed for me, as I will for you, as the last thing I want is yet another stint in a psych hospital or more meds.
I am passing these articles on to my doctors; social worker and a special friend. They are learning so much, just as I am.
HEARTFELT THANKS

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Margaret Donovan

Thank you so much for that article.I really struggle with depression and meds do not help.I am a nurse and got sick 1990@and needed to stop work.My major problem is being lonely so have started walking and am starting an arthritis water class.Praying that will help.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

I’m praying for you too Margaret. I hope you’re able to find comfort from your depression soon. It sounds like you’ve made some healthy changes. Keep doing them, and be patient – the exercise and company will be doing good things for you, even if you don’t see the change straight away. If your symptoms have been there for a while, it can take a while to turn them around. The main thing is not to give up and to keep going. I wish you all the best.

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Michele

3 years of major depression and anxiety. No meds helping me. Pretty much disabled. I try and walk everyday. Not helping. I isolate and ruminate. Help

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Michele have you had your medication assessed by a doctor? Sometimes amounts need to be adjusted, or a different type of anti-depressant might need to be prescribed. Not all anti-depressants will work for all people, which is why there sometimes needs to be a bit of experimenting (always with a doctor guiding you) to see what works best. If you are looking for other lifestyle things to try, have you tried mindfulness? It changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that can help to protect it against anxiey. Here is some information about that http://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-depression-meditation-exercise/. If you are looking for a way to start practicing mindfulness, the free Smiling Mind app is a great way to do this.

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