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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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