Healing From Depression. The 6 Proven, Non-Medication Ways To Strengthen the Brain and Body Against Depression (We Should All Be Doing This!)

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. 

50 Comments

Brendan

This is a good, high quality, informative article. It goes beyond purely medicalizing depression and addresses the fact that our lives are far different from what we are biologically accustomed to and that there are some parts of our lives that we may need to give more attention. Thank you!

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Jason Jones

I liked the post you have shared. The post nicely deals to the various models, side effects, root causes of depression and anxiety and also describe how one can tackle this awful disease. Thanks for sharing this kind of useful article.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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