6 Ways to Overcome Depression Naturally with Science

6 Ways to Overcome Depression Naturally with Science

In this article, we will dig into research to understand the causes of depression. You will be equipped with actionable ways to overcome depression naturally through adapting our lifestyles.

Our focus will be on research from Stephen Ilardi. He is a professor who has been studying clinical depression (Also known as major depressive disorder) and ways of treating depression at the University of Kansas. He has developed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC) program that uses lifestyle change to treat and cure depression.

We will explore what depression is, the causes, and the underlying symptoms. We can better understand this in the context of how lifestyle has radically transformed over human history. Finally, we will explore how to take control over depression for good.

What is Depression?

what is depression?When we describe depression, we are generally talking about two different meanings. On one hand, we use it to describe general sadness. Today, we are talking about depression in the clinical context. Depression is treated as an illness; a mood disorder associated with extreme sadness, poor concentration, sleep issues, problems with appetite. Overall, it is a drawn-out state of helplessness and hopelessness.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Poor motor control
  • Lack of focus and attention
  • Memory issues
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Physical and emotional pain
  • Reduced ability to work, play, and even love
  • Suicidal tendencies

Brain scans have revealed that depression actually lights up the circuitry in the brain associated with pain. Even worse, depression is on a rise and the risk of depression increases with every generation.

Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Depression

Causes of depression can be complex. It is often the result of a combination of factors. You can have a biological or psychological predisposition. It can also come from social and cultural influences. It can even come from your own behaviors.

Depression is usually triggered by a runaway stress response. Traditionally, we would consider this to be the fight or flight response. It helped our ancestors adapt when they had to face physical danger. It is still useful in certain situations where there are sudden changes in our environment that may affect our well-being.  These situations typically call for quick responses, such as swerving to avoid an accident, or ducking when you notice something flying towards your head.  Our stress response would then fade away fairly quickly.

The issue comes from having the stress response over prolonged periods of time. In modern life, we usually keep ourselves in safe conditions where our physical safety isn’t threatened. When we get a stress response and it doesn’t go away, it builds towards our depression and anxiety. This is incredibly toxic to our minds and bodies.

When the stress response spirals out of control, we will typically see chronic symptoms. Our quality of sleep will suffer, and our immune systems will weaken. It can even cause brain damage and inflammation in our brains. As Ilardi says, “An inflamed brain is a depressed brain.”

Here is a short video (4:28) that does a good job of explaining the symptoms of depression:

A Brief History of Human Lifestyle

Hunter gatherer lifestyleThe vast majority of our collective human experience was spent as hunter-gatherers. Over tens of thousands of years, we adapted very well for that kind of environment and lifestyle. We began exploring agriculture within the last 10,000 years.

After we entered the industrial revolution in the last 200 years, our lifestyles and environment radically transformed. Modern Western life became incredibly different than anything that came before it. Within that time, our genetics haven’t changed much to adapt to our new lifestyles and environments.

Diseases of Civilization

With civilization progressing at a faster rate than we can adapt, there will inevitably be issues that arise. As Ilardi states, there is a profound misalignment between our genes, the bodies and brains they build, and the world we find ourselves in.

We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food-laden, sleep deprived, frenzied pace of modern life

Stephen Ilardi

We have largely shifted our lifestyles towards less physical activity, sunlight, social activity, healthy food, and sleep. We also tend to have poor balance between work, life, and leisure. Our bodies and minds don’t cope very well to these changes and make us prone to inflammatory diseases.

Inflammatory diseases are widespread in the modern industrialized world. Yet in modern day aboriginal groups, they are virtually nonexistent since they live similar lifestyles to our ancestors.

Other Inflammatory Diseases Include:

  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Obesity
  • Cancer

How to Tame Depression

There are 6 key ways to treat and cure depression. Each suggestion helps alleviate depression on its own, but works wonders when combined together.
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Implementing these tactics together can dramatically improve your quality of life.

Even if you don’t suffer from depression, these will help increase your mood, energy, and performance.

  1. Physical Activity & Exercise
  2. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
  3. Sunlight
  4. Healthy Sleep
  5. Anti-Ruminative Activity
  6. Social Connection

1) Physical Activity & Exercise

couple exerciseExercise is quite literally medicine. Physical activity releases serotonin and dopamine, which give us a sensation of pleasure and acts as an anti-depressant. Exercise also sharpens mental ability and has anti-ageing effects.

We can often shy away from working about with machines or going out of our way to exercise because it doesn’t seem natural. Remember that physical activity was embedded in our daily lives before we started sitting and staring at screens for a large portion of our day.

Building exercise into your daily routines can make it feel more natural. Physical activities with other people can also help make exercising more rewarding,

A habit of brisk walking for only 30 minutes a few times a week alleviates symptoms of depression. Studies have shown that this small exercise habit even beats the effects of Zoloft, and without the side effects!

2) Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids

omega-3 fatty acids

Our brains are mostly made of fat. They are 60% fat by dry weight.

Our bodies are capable of making all the types of fat we need with a couple exceptions.

There are a couple essential fats we need that regulate inflammation: Omega-6s and Omega-3s.

Omega-6 promotes inflammation. It’s often found in grains and seeds, as well as the animals that eat them. They are very common in processed food with grain-based oils, like the majority of American fast food.

Omega 3 fatty acids, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory. They are found in plants, such as grasses and algae. They are also found in the animals that eat them such as poultry, fish, livestock, and wild game.

Ideally, we would have a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. This ratio is similar to our ancestorial hunter-gatherers. However, the modern Western diet ratio is roughly 17:1 or sometimes even 20:1. Since depression is an inflammatory illness, it is easy to see how our unbalanced diets can feed directly into being prone to depression.

The active ingredient in omega-3s that are most effective in treating depression is Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA.) Steven Ilardi recommends 1,000-2,000 mg of EPA per day for an antidepressant dose.

When searching for good fish oil, you want to make sure that you get high-grade fish oil with high levels of EPA. You can tell if you get low-grade fish oil if you end up with fishy burps. Fishy burps show that your fish oil isn’t as refined and effective.

You can find good Omega-3 fish oil on Amazon.com. Make sure you look for a higher level of EPA so you don’t have to take 5-6 capsules for the recommended antidepressant dose!

3) Sunlight

overcome depression naturally sunlightSunlight plays an important role in regulating our mood and energy.

Sunlight resets our internal clocks. Part of the issue is that without strong sunlight, our circadian rhythm starts to drift. This can affect our quality of sleep and shift our hormonal levels out of balance. Our energy starts to drop, and we end up wanting to hibernate. Our appetite also goes crazy for carbs.

Light can actually change our brain function and neurochemistry. The circuits in your brain that regulate energy use dopamine and serotonin. Light helps stimulate their production and give you more energy.

overcome depression sunlight therapyAbout one-third of Americans experience at least some symptom of depression during the cold and gloomy days of winter. Luckily, there are ways of addressing this since we don’t have control over the sun or winter.

There are companies that create artificial light boxes that are bright enough to simulate the effects of sunlight.

You can find great Sunlight Therapy Lights on Amazon. Just make sure they have an output of at least 10,000 lux!

The benefits of light therapy for treating depression typically show within 5-7 days. You only need to be exposed for about 30 minutes in the morning. You want to get your light treatment within an hour of waking up.

4) Healthy Sleep

good sleepGood sleep has a huge impact on our mood and energy. It is good to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Having too little sleep can be a huge trigger for depression.

If you want to train your body to get the best sleep, you can wake up and go to bed at the same times. Waking and sleeping at the same hours helps you train your circadian rhythm.

It is best to avoid alcohol, caffeine or stimulants within several hours before sleeping.

It also helps to avoid performing non-sleeping activities in bed or sleeping in places other than your bed. You want to use pavlovian conditioning to your advantage so that your body associates laying down with sleeping.

You also want to avoid bright lights and screens within your last hour before bed. Lights stop your body from producing melatonin, which starts and regulates the sleep process. Even when looking at dim screens, the blue light tricks your eye’s photoreceptors into thinking you are seeing a bright light.

Being active during the day helps you get to sleep because your body is tired. You also want to quiet your mind as much as possible before bed.

5) Anti-Ruminative Activity

rumination-smallOur thoughts can play a large part in creating our mood. It is common for prolonged rumination to feed into depression. Rumination is when you dwell on negative thoughts or feelings.

People with depression often let negative thoughts spiral out of control. They feed their inner critics and worst case scenarios with negative energy, and those negative thoughts can quickly take control over our mood.

The issue with rumination is that it pumps up our brain’s stress response circuitry.

There are several steps you can take to avoid ruminating. When you start to ruminate, you want to notice it as quickly as possible. You have to make a decision to redirect your focus and shift your attention to something more positive or productive.

The best way to redirect your attention is engaging in an activity that captures your full attention. You can write down your thoughts to externalize them. Expressing gratitude can help you reset your perspective. You can also change the context of your thoughts so that they trigger better thoughts.

Another key way to refocus your attention is to change your environment. Some environments can trigger rumination, like when you are alone inside. Getting out in nature can dramatically help.

We are most likely to ruminate when we are alone. Spending time with loved ones can quickly stop ruminating altogether.

You can also join your friend in other activities. You typically want to avoid discussing the issue because you can drag other people into your rumination. If have a relationship where you can talk openly and objectively, sharing your thoughts with others who have dealt with similar thoughts may help.

6) Social Connection

socializingWe are social creatures. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to form close-knit communities for support and survival. They looked to each other for comfort, entertainment, and safety.

With our modern day lifestyles, we are increasingly isolating ourselves in pursuit of ‘independence.’ Many people today feel that they don’t have many close friends. They often feel like they don’t have a sense of meaningful belonging to a community.

There is an increase of withdrawing to the comfort of our homes and screens. There is no shortage of entertainment and activities for us to replace meaningful social interactions.

Connecting and socializing on deeper levels helps tremendously with depression, especially with positive people.

If you are feeling depressed, it is important to avoid the urge to withdraw and isolate yourself. You want to share activities with people you love and care about. Try to surround yourself with people who will lift you up, rather indulging in ruminating with you.

Summary

Depression can sharply reduce our quality of life. Left unchecked, it will taint our mood and affect the people around us.

Hopefully, you have learned more about the causes of depression, how it affects us, and how we can overcome it. Understanding how to overcome depression naturally is the best way to restore our well-being.

Now that we understand depression better, we can adapt our lifestyles to treat and cure it.

  1. Physical Activity & Exercise
  2. Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids
  3. Sunlight
  4. Healthy Sleep
  5. Anti-Ruminative Activity
  6. Social Connection

The more we can combine these strategies and implement them in our lifestyle, the more control we will have over our emotions, energy, and quality of life!

Learn More

I recommend checking out Stephen Ilardi’s book The Depression Cure. It is available on Amazon and discusses the ideas in this article in greater detail.

You can learn more about Stephen Ilardi’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC) Program.

You can also view Stephen Ilardi’s Research at Kansas University.

Ilardi’s TED talk on a few treatments:
“Depression is a disease of civilization”

(23 min)

Ilardi’s Full Lecture at Kansas University:
Therapeutic Lifestyle Change 

(1 hour, 45 min)