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?