Depression is a debilitating condition and it is very real for those who experience it, contrary to those who believe it’s just mind over matter, there can be many underlying factors that contribute to depressive symptoms. It is estimated that there are over 17 million Americans that have diagnosable clinical depression, which is a staggering 7% of the population of the United States. Depression is incredibly hard to overcome for a variety of reasons: those in a bout of depression often lack motivation which is so necessary to make positive change, there is still much stigma about mental illness and those with depression can seem to be happy to the outside world-making the kind of social support that is so needed in this state difficult to find, and lastly because there are just so many different factors playing into each person’s individual cause of depression that there is no cure-all available that works for everyone’s unique condition. In this article I will dive into some factors that may play into depression, and some essential natural ways to help yourself or a loved one outside a state of depression. Factors that may lead to depression Low serotonin levels have been observed in those with depression, with the lowest levels being found in those that are depressed to the point of being suicidal. Serotonin is crucial in the brain as a neurotransmitter that allows nerve cells to communicate with one another allowing for the regulation of mood. Although this is not the only cause of depression (as early antidepressant medication commercials implied) serotonin dysregulation can still be a major factor in depressive symptoms. How to raise serotonin levels naturally Eat more tryptophan containing foods: Serotonin is produced from the amino acid tryptophan, so a deficiency in this nutrient can play a role in depression. Some key sources of tryptophan are seeds such as sesame, sunflower, flax, chia and nuts such as pistachios, cashews, almond and hazelnuts. Soy beans, cheese and meats such as lamb, beef, turkey, chicken, and eggs are also high sources of tryptophan. Tuna fish, salmon, whole oats and beans of all varieties are other significant dietary sources of this crucial amino acid. Remove factors that lead to lower serotonin: There are many lifestyle and dietary factors that may contribute to lowered serotonin levels. The main ones are smoking cigarettes, blood sugar issues both from excess sugar in diet and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), too much alcohol or caffeine intake and a variety of nutrient deficiencies that will later be addressed in this article with what supplements have shown benefit in the research for natural approaches to depression. It is interesting to note that many of these activities seem to help depression in the moment, but are actually detrimental due to how the impair serotonin production. Cognitive therapy and counseling can help with depression:
Cognitive therapy in particular has good research out there for helping deal with depression, and has surprisingly been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in some cases. Cognitive therapy is essentially a method of teaching skills that allow the depressed person to deal with the psychological factors that may cause depression. The therapists aims to: help the person recognize negative automatic thoughts, counterbalance negative thoughts with positive ones, dealing with the stories we tell ourselves that are harmful, techniques for avoiding rumination and diving deep into the thoughts and beliefs that lead to depression to bring about more positive and empowering ways of thinking. Sometimes just talking to someone who genuinely listens can also be very therapeutic. It is crucial to remember that many of the stories we tell ourselves are not true, and we need only to realize that not every thought that occurs to us should be taken at face value and believed. Focus on the foundations of health: diet, exercise, sleep, nature bathing and meaningful social interactions. There’s a ton of research showing that exercising at least 30 minutes at least 3 times a week have significant effects on improving mood, energy and a state of calm. But no one needs to tell you that! It’s obvious how good we can feel after a vigorous movement activity, especially if its an activity we enjoy. For this it is crucial to find an activity you enjoy, if you have lifting weights then DON’T LIFT WEIGHTS. It is better to do a lighter activity that you will be excited about, than to force yourself to do something you hate that we abandon after one try. Eating a diet high in Omega 3’s like those found in cold water fish, colorful vegetables and getting adequate protein and low glycemic carbohydrates is a huge factor in giving the brain the building blocks it needs to make you feel awesome! Sleep, sleep, sleep- that elusive thing that we all feel we should get more of. It is beyond question how important sleep is to overcoming depression, but yet depression and insomnia so often occur together. There are a variety of approaches to getting better sleep some of which are herbs that can help with sleep (link) and improving “sleep hygiene” which are the practices around sleep that make or break our beauty rest. This includes things like no bright lights/screens an hour before bed, have a sleep ritual to prep you for bed, don’t do work or watch TV in bed (forms an association not conducive to sleep), sleep in a cold, dark, quiet room (a cave if you can manage it) and other little tips and tricks to improve sleep quality. Getting time outside is also so crucial to having a positive outlook, humans were certainly not meant to live indoors so get out there, get some sun on your skin (unless you’re in the pacific northwest then just get rained on), get some fresh air and enjoy the beautiful smells and sights of a forest filled with green life! In my experience going on a mild hike or just sauntering through the woods has been one of the quickest ways to turn a funky day into a relaxed and joyful one. There are many factors that make natural environments helpful for mood and some great research on forest bathing, so find a natural spot you love and enjoy the gifts of the earth! Meaningful social interaction is even more important when depressed than when you’re feeling okay because with depression there is often a sense of isolation that gets worse the longer one is alone. Carl Jung once said “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” This insight is incredibly crucial, just having one person you can talk to can make the world of difference. Often it is incredibly hard to ask for the help needed, but many people are surprised that those around them may actually care about the struggles they face and may even face the same ones themselves! Supplements and herbs that help depression: There are a variety of vitamins and herbs that have some research showing they may help the symptoms of depression. One of my favorite herbs of all time for this is Saint John’s wort (link to more information here) which I wrote an in depth article on that you can browse at your leisure. There are at least 25 studies that have shown that St. John’s Wort can be as useful as antidepressants and with fewer side effects. Do be careful with any drug interactions that can happen with this beautiful yellow flowered plant though, it doesn’t get along well with many pharmaceuticals. Another herb that has researched usefulness in depression and helps with a variety of other mental issues is Lavender (link to article here). The herb saffron which is a often used spice in middle eastern food and is quite delicious has also had research indicating it could be helpful for depression. However given that it is often very expensive it is not the best herbal remedy out there.
Here are some other great dietary supplements that may help with depression:
- 5 HTP- this compound is a precursor of serotonin
- Vitamin B6, B9 & B12- deficiencies can cause depression
- Vitamin D- Strong association between low vitamin D & depression
- Fish Oils- Omega 3 Fatty Acids have some researched usefulness in depression and are crucial to nervous system functioning
- SAM-e- may increase serotonin, dopamine and improve neurotransmitter effects
- Chromium- helps in functioning of serotonin and insulin
- Selenium- low selenium is associated with depressed mood
- Zinc- mineral co-factor in various enzyme reactions, deficiencies found in mood disorders, helps with depression according to some studies
Most important of all however is to believe that it is possible to overcome depression, because so often apathy and hopelessness prevent the very efforts that could revolutionize our lives. If there is a will, there is a way- and I hope this article gave you a nugget of natural wisdom to chew on! A great resource for more in depth information on natural approaches to depression, anxiety and insomnia can be found below, I owe much of the information in this article from that wonderful tome of natural wisdom! Resources:
The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine 3rd edition, Michael Murray ND & Joseph Pizzorno ND, Atria Paperback, 2012.