The usual treatments for depression are prescription antidepressant medications which, in theory, work by increasing levels of “feel good” brain chemicals. But prescription antidepressants work for less than half of those who try them and have a high relapse rate. There’s evidence they are no more effective than a placebo, but have a lot more side effects.
If you’ve gone the medical route with little success or are hesitant to try medication, you might feel hopeless — that there is little else you can do. But fortunately there are many natural ways to treat depression that have been scientifically proven to work often as good as or better than antidepressants. Here’s a look at some of the best natural ways to beat depression.
Avoid Processed Food
There’s an ongoing debate as to what is the best way to eat for general health and mental health. Is it paleo, vegetarian, raw foods, gluten-free, or the Mediterranean diet? I’m not going to try to convince you here of what is the healthiest diet — the best diet for you may not be the best for everyone else. But one thing the healthiest diets have in common is that they focus on eating real food.
Processed food, fast food and commercial baked goods are linked to depression. The benefits of eating unprocessed food are twofold. First, it greatly increases your chances of getting the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other nutrients your brain needs to function. And secondly, it eliminates additives known to contribute to depression like white sugar, MSG and artificial sweeteners.
Eat Healthy Fats
Besides eating unprocessed food, the other dietary rule for depression is to eat plenty of healthy fats. Your brain is largely made of fat — about 60 percent by dry weight. A lot of that is cholesterol since 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol resides in the brain. Cholesterol, in spite of what we’ve been told, does not cause heart disease. But too little cholesterol increases your risk of depression and even suicide. Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the bestselling book Grain Brain, discovered in his neurology practice that nothing was worse for his patients’ brains than a low-fat diet. He recommends eating plenty of healthy fats like nuts, avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, wild salmon and grass-fed meat.
Research has found that the more unhealthy trans fats you consume, the higher your risk of depression. The simple act of replacing vegetable oils that contain trans fats, like canola oil, with olive oil decreases risk of depression by almost 50 percent. Coconut oil, recently rediscovered as a healthy fat, uniquely feeds the brain with medium-chain fatty acids. It’s as effective for depression as prescription antidepressants.
People with depression tend to have lower blood levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids. Omega-3s are an integral structural component of brain cell membranes and nerve cells. One omega-3 in particular that’s critical for brain function is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA deficiency is linked to depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The best dietary sources of omega-3 fats and DHA are cold-water fatty fish like salmon and sardines. If these are not a regular part of your diet, consider taking a fish oil or a DHA supplement.
Get Physical Exercise
Physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for elevating your mood. It increases circulation to deliver more oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to your brain while clearing out toxins and metabolic debris. Exercise builds a healthier brain by increasing the levels of brain chemicals that promote new brain cell formation and new neural connections. It actually reorganizes the brain so that it responds better to stress. Regular physical exercise has been found to work better for depression than SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), the drugs usually prescribed for depression.
Dr. John Ratey, renowned psychiatrist and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has extensively studied the impact of physical exercise on the brain. He’s found that exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function and that it works as well as Zoloft for depression. According to Ratey, here’s how exercise works: “Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise also increases our body and brain levels of endocannabinoids, brain growth factors (BDNF) and regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants.”
If possible, exercise outdoors which is considerably more beneficial than indoor exercise. Outdoor exercise increases vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem while lowering tension, depression, and fatigue even better than indoor exercise. Outdoor exercise helps to reset your circadian rhythm to help you sleep. Under the right circumstances, it can help replenish your valuable stores of vitamin D. Vitamin D can lift your mood and prevent the winter blues. Amazingly, the exercise you do today can protect you from depression for up to five years, even if you decide to stop exercising. But with all of these great benefits, why would you want to stop?
The evidence is overwhelming that regular meditation is one of the best ways to heal depression. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University sifted through over 18,000 meditation studies and concluded that meditation is beneficial for mental disorders of all kinds and one of its best uses is for depression. Meditation works on many levels. It increases levels of both serotonin, your “happiness molecule,” and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the relaxing neurotransmitter, and it reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which significantly contributes to depression. It also puts out the fire of brain inflammation, which is associated with depression. And it quiets the mind and reduces negative self-talk, a problem for everyone but especially for those with a mood disorder.
Using the healing powers of the mind goes beyond traditional meditation too. According to the University of Maryland’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide, depression responds favorably to mind-body healing techniques of all kinds, not only meditation. A partial list includes guided imagery, self-hypnosis, yoga, breathing exercises, autogenic training, acupuncture, biofeedback, and neurofeedback.
Develop An Attitude Of Gratitude
You don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to count your blessings. Incorporating a daily practice of gratitude can improve your health, relationships, self-esteem, and sleep. Research shows that it can also make you happier. Gratitude and depression seem to be inversely proportional.
In studies, people who are depressed express nearly 50 percent less gratitude than control groups. Conversely, the more grateful a person is, the less depressed he is likely to be. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, is considered the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. His research confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression. Gratitude may work by reducing underlying toxic emotions such as envy, frustration, resentment, and regret.
An easy way to get started on your gratitude practice is to write down three things you are grateful for each evening. If you can’t think of anything, it’s OK to start small. Oprah Winfrey, an enthusiastic supporter of gratitude, recommends starting with basics like having a bed to sleep in, if that’s all you can think of. If you don’t want to take pen to paper, you can use an app like Gratitude 365. The important thing is to create a new habit. Practicing gratitude creates a surge of mood-boosting brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
Try Herbal Remedies For Depression
While adopting a healthy lifestyle is always recommended, it won’t always be enough to conquer the black dog of depression. Herbal remedies can help. You might be surprised to learn that herbal remedies have been used medicinally to treat depression in every traditional culture. Apparently depression isn’t just a modern malady. Many of these traditional herbs have been scientifically proven to be just as effective as antidepressants and some increase the effectiveness of medications when taken together.
In traditional Chinese medicine, Arctic root (Rhodiola rosea), Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) have been used for depression for thousands of years. Now science is beginning to understand how these ancient herbs work.
Arctic root increases the activity of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. It’s particularly useful for depression accompanied by anxiety and fatigue or that’s caused by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Arctic root reduces depression symptoms faster than antidepressant medications, often bringing relief in as little as one week.
Ginkgo is one of the most popular herbal remedies on the planet. It’s most commonly used as a memory booster but it’s even more effective for depression than memory loss. It’s known for its ability to increase blood flow to the brain. It raises levels of dopamine and serotonin while lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Most people take Asian ginseng to increase physical stamina or improve their sex life, but it’s also beneficial for both depression and anxiety. It’s the main ingredient in the traditional Chinese herbal formula Kai Xin San, a combination of herbs that’s just as good as Prozac for treating depression.
India has its own healing tradition known as Ayurvedic medicine. One of the most important Ayurvedic herbs is ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). It’s been used for over 3,000 years as a general tonic to ward off stress and aging. Ashwagandha excels in its ability to reduce stress by reducing cortisol, making it a good choice for stress-related depression accompanied by anxiety and insomnia. Unlike some supplements which should not be taken along with medications, ashwagandha has been shown to work synergistically with SSRIs.
Another Ayurvedic antidepressant is the spice turmeric (Curcuma longa), renowned for its brain-boosting properties. This spice plays an important role in the culinary traditions of India and southern Asia. Most studies have been done on turmeric’s main active ingredient, curcumin. Curcumin works by increasing levels of the two “feel good” neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. It’s as effective for depression as Prozac even for major depressive disorder and, unlike medication, is safe to take indefinitely. Like ashwagandha, curcumin enhances the effectiveness of antidepressants.
You might be familiar with saffron as a culinary spice used in Indian and Persian cuisine. It might not be in your spice rack since it’s one of the most expensive spices in the world, but what’s not widely known about saffron is that it’s one of the most promising herbal remedies for depression. It works by acting on serotonin metabolism and is as effective for depression as Prozac (sound familiar by now?). If you decide to give saffron supplements a try, make sure you buy a supplement that contains a standardized extract of Crocus sativus. Since saffron is expensive, saffron fraud is rampant.
Use Homeopathic Remedies
Homeopathy is a controversial healing practice. The medical community largely believes homeopathy is quackery and that, if it works at all, it’s due to the placebo effect. This is ironic since there’s evidence that antidepressants are no more effective than a placebo — and have a lot more side effects! Even many who believe in the healing power of herbs and nutritional supplements consider homeopathy “herbal remedies lite” — nothing more than watered-down herbs. If you are among the skeptics, it might surprise you to learn that homeopathy can work as well for depression as prescription antidepressants.
The key to homeopathy is finding the specific remedy that works for you. Since one-size-fits-all rarely works with anything, this is no different than finding the right drug or nutritional supplement. For best results, get the professional advice of a trained homeopath. If that’s not feasible, you can increase your chance of success with a multi-ingredient homeopathic remedy specifically formulated for depression.
According to psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Watson, who has published dozens of scientific research papers on mood disorders, some of the best homeopathic remedies for depression include Arsenicum album, Aurum metallicum, Ignatia amara, Lachesis muta, Natrium muraticum, Pulsatilla nigricans, and Sepia. Once you’ve found the right remedy, studies show the appropriate homeopathic remedy can work as well as a prescription antidepressants even for moderate to severe depression.