We live in a culture in which popular media promotes the idea that weneed to take pills for every ailment. In many cases, that is a good idea. For example, if you have an infection, it is likely that an antibiotic will help you recover. However, the same approach has been applied to the treatment of depression. The biological conceptualization of this disorder is that the human brain has a chemical imbalance (mostly due to low levels of, or not enough circulation of the neurotransmitter serotonin). It is thought that taking anti-depressants will correct this imbalance of neurotransmitters (Nutt, 2008). Although people suffering from depression most likely have a chemical brain imbalance, solely taking medications, in many cases, is not usually the best solution.
Many people report that they feel better after taking antidepressant medication. Feeling better may be due to a chemical re-balance or it may be due to a placebo effect (Davies, 2013). The placebo effect occurs subconsciously when people take an inactive substance (e.g. a fake treatment such as a sugar or saline pill) and then they feel better because they expected or believed that they would feel better.
Most of the research in which the efficacy of antidepressant medication rests, is often completed with questionable research methods. In general, according to Davies (2013), researchers paid by pharmaceutical companies select research subjects who have already reported a placebo effect in a previous study. Thus, instead of conducting double blind studies, they are conducting double biased research. The researchers are biased because they are paid to show that antidepressants are effective. If these researchers cannot do so, they would not have jobs with the pharmaceutical companies. The research participants are biased because they are susceptible to reporting a placebo effect. Results from this biased research are then used to suggest that these medications are effective (Davies, 2013).
Side effects of taking anti-depressant medications are plentiful and daunting. They can even make people worse. For example, some people contemplate suicide when they did not have these thoughts before taking medications. Cipralex, for instance, is a commonly prescribed antidepressant. According to WebMD, side effects can include: problems with appetite, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, muscle and joint pain, abnormal dreams, sleepiness, dizziness, and vomiting. Note that people often take antidepressants because they want relief from poor appetite, insomnia, restlessness, and sleepiness, and note that Cipralex could make those symtpoms worse. Side effects of Effexor, another commonly prescribed antidepressant, can include high blood pressure, lack or loss of strength, severe headache, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat (WebMD website).
Natural remedies for depression emerged years ago, and were later researched by scientists (who were not paid by pharmaceuticalcompanies) using methods to reduce as much bias as possible. The below ten factors have been shown by research to be far more effective than the available pharmaceutical options.
1) The most effective treatment for depression is exercise (for example, Dunn et al, 2005), perhaps partly due to the activation of opioid systems in the brain that occurs when exercising vigorously. There are many other benefits to exercise which help to alleviate depression such as better sleep, better appetite, feeling good about oneself for doing something healthy etc.
2) Most depressed people talk to themselves in a derogatory way, as if a bully was taunting them. They say things such as “you’re a loser, no one likes you, and you’ll never get a good job.” Instead of perpetuating this bully’s messages, replace this taunting with a “best friend voice” (Burns, 1993). The rule is that if you would not talk to your best friend in this way, then you should not speak to yourself that way. A best friend voice would replace the derogatory phrases with “I’m having a hard time now but I will find a job eventually, the economy is slow right now, some people do not like me and that is normal and some people do like me especially when I concentrate on being polite and respectful to others.”
3) One of the contributing factors to developing and maintaining depression is inadequate sleep (Bjørngaard, 2011). Using sleep hygiene rules can greatly enhance one’s ability to obtain restful sleep. The rules of sleep hygiene are to do the following every day:
a) Go to bed and get up at the same time (within 30 minutes),
b) Do not drink caffeinated beverages after 2 pm,
d) Ten minutes of meditation (see below),
e) Try to get sunshine and fresh air during the day,
f) Engage in a relaxing routine one hour before bedtime,
g) Keep your bedroom at a cool temperature and make it as comfortable as you can,
h) Do not use bright lights one hour before sleep time including no use of electronic devices,
i) Do not engage in distressing activities two hours before bedtime (such as watching upsetting news, engaging in arguments etc.), and
j) Do not drink alcohol within three hours of sleep time.
4) Following a productive routine during the day also has a positive influence on mood (Kanter, et al., 2011). Many severely depressed people feel like lying around all day and night. Giving into the urge of lying around all day then “feeds the depression monster” such that the more one lies around, the more one wants to keep lying around. Instead, depressed people need to create a modest schedule and follow it. For example, the schedule could include walking for at least thirty minutes every day starting at 10 am, having a shower at 11, do one 15 minute chore at 12, make contact with someone in the afternoon by text, email or phone etc.
5) Depression, especially when it has a seasonal pattern (i.e. people feel sad when the daylight hours are shorter in the winter), can lead to cravings and eating a lot of refined carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain, which can lead to feeling bad about one’s body. Proper nutrition, such as eating plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts supply the brain and body with the chemicals needed to maintain good physical and mental health (Popa & Ladea, 2012).
6) Humans are pack animals (as are dogs) and we need contact and acceptance by others. We need social support (e.g. friends and family) so that we feel good from being loved and wanted. Social support is also important because it gives us opportunities to vent emotion and to obtain the good feelings we get when we receive empathy. In addition to human social support, caring for a pet that loves and accepts us unconditionally can also partly fulfill the need to feel loved.
7) Daily practice of the “gratitude exercise” has been shown to be associated with reduced depression (Lambert, Fincham, & Stillman, 2011). This exercise involves naming at least three things every day that you appreciate. It could be that you have gratitude for having a good friend that listens to you, for a comfortable place to live, or for a job in which you feel you make a positive difference. It is also fun to think of different things you appreciate every day. This exercise may be effective partly because it causes you to look for positive aspects of your life.
8) Engaging in acts of kindness may be effective in combatting depression because it feels good to do it (Southwick, Vythilingam, & Charney, 2005). It is also possible that altruism is an effective natural antidepressant because it makes people think of others rather than themselves (and how depressed they are and how terrible their lives seem to be to them). This perspective on others may also help depressed people appreciate their own circumstances more.
9) Meditation is an effective way to calm the body and mind and to improve mental health (Singleton et al., 2014). It mainly involves sitting or lying in a comfortable position and concentrating on just your breath going in and out of your body while envisioning a calming vista and or using a calming word such as re-lax with each breath.
10) Being in nature has a calming and mood elevating effect on the brain. Consider walking by a river, visiting a local park, or going for a drive through some mountains as an urban cleanse for your brain.
In general, although taking pills is much easier and less time-consuming than practising the above ten recommendations, these techniques are far healthier and effective. By exercising, using the best friend voice, following sleep hygiene rules, engaging in a productive routine, eating nutritious food, having regular contact with caring people, practising gratitude and meditation, being altruistic, and urban cleansing, you could lead a more positive life in which you feel calm and content.
Bjørngaard,J.H., Bjerkeset, O., Romundstad, P., Gunnell, D. (2011). Sleeping problems and suicide in 75,000 Norwegian adults: a 20 year follow-up of the HUNT study. Sleep, 34 (9). doi: 10.5665/sleep.1228
Burns, D.D., (1993). Ten days to self esteem. NY: Harper Collins.
Davies, J. (2013). Cracked: The unhappy truth about psychiatry. NY: Pegasus.
Dunn, A.L., Trivedi, M.H., Kampert, J.B., Clark, C.G., Chambliss, H.O. (2005). Exercise treatment for depression. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 28, 1-8. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2004.09.003
Kanter, J.W., Bowe, W.M., Baruch, D.E., Busch, A.M. (2010). Behavioural Activation for Depression. Retrieved from http://www.books.google.ca/books
Lambert, N.M., Fincham, F.D., & Stillman, T.F. (2011). Gratitude and depressive symtpoms: The role of reframing and positive emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 26 (4). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2011.595393
Nutt, D.J., (2008). Relationship of neurotransmitters to the symptom of major depressive disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 69. Retrieved from http://www.psyc. hiatrist.com/JCP/article/Pages/2008/v69e01/v69e0101.aspx
Popa, T.A., & Ladea, M. (2012). Nutrition and depression at the forefront of progress. Journal of Medicine and Life, 5(4). Retrieved from http://www.Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3539842
Singleton, O., Holzel, B.K., Vangel, M., Brach, N., Carmody, J., & Lazar, S.W. (2014). Change in brainstem gray matter concentration following a mindfulness-based intervention is correlated with improvement in psychological well-being. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8 (33). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00033
Southwick, S.M., Vythilingam, M., & Charney, D.S. (2011). The psychobiology of depression and resilience to stress: Implications for prevention and treatment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, doi 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.143948