Is it possible to reduce symptoms of depression without antidepressants? The simple answer is yes. You don’t need pills to reduce depressive symptoms or even to recover from depression. By making a few lifestyle changes at home, your symptoms may decrease significantly or disappear altogether.
Here are five different treatments for depression – and none of them includes antidepressant medication.
The antidepressant diet
Randomised, controlled clinical trials have consistently shown how food impacts mood. In 2017, the HELIUS study with 4,969 participants demonstrated that those who ate a lot of red meat, added sugars and high-fat dairy products experienced more depressive symptoms. This means that a meal at our nearest fast food restaurant is not as cheap and convenient as it seems ; we eventually pay for it with our mental health.
So what foods help to reduce symptoms? In a major clinical study, world-leading expert on diet and mental health, Professor Felice Jacka, studied the effects of a traditional Mediterranean diet on depression. This antidepressant diet included whole grains, fish, vegetables (particularly green leaves), fruit, berries, nuts (including almonds), seeds and the unrivalled cold pressed olive oil.
The results showed that 30% of the participants recovered from depression just by changing their eating habits. It looks like a well-nourished body is better at handling stress and recovering from illnesses.
Exercise as depression treatment
Clinical studies have consistently shown that regular exercise is just as effective as antidepressant medication or psychotherapy for treating depression. So, how much exercise is enough?
Dr Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University, gives us the exact recipe: 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week. You don’t need more than that, but it’s important to work up a sweat. People with depression often struggle with exercise, so start small with a 10 minute walk, then add a few minutes daily.
Let’s watch some of the benefits of exercising for treating depression.
Why exactly does exercise work as a depression treatment? In their science review, neuroscientists Dr Julia Basso and Dr Wendy Suzuki explain the effects of exercise on mood, cognition and neurophysiology.
During exercise, chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, are released in the brain, immediately producing feelings of happiness and pleasure. Long-term, exercising actually creates new brain cells, making your brain more resistant to depression and other diseases.
Meditate to protect yourself from depression
Negative thoughts can be a painful and crippling feature of depression. Mindfulness meditation will help you handle strong emotions and negative thoughts in new ways, which can be valuable when trying to recover from depression without medication. It can also prevent falling back into depression a second time.
In 2010, Dr Norman Farb and his colleagues discovered that those who meditated regularly reacted differently to sadness by using their ‘present moment network’ area of their brains.
Feelings of sadness could be experienced, without becoming caught up in it or having additional worrying thoughts. The non-meditators used the ‘evaluation’ network of the brain and got caught up in thoughts about sadness, such as ‘Why do I feel this way?’, ‘How can I stop this?’, ‘There’s something wrong.’
Let’s watch how meditation can help to reduce the risk of depression:
More research is needed to determine what dose of mindfulness meditation will most effectively reduce depression. At present, the recommendation is 10-30 minutes daily.
The therapeutic sleep
Ninety per cent of depressed people struggle with sleep. Good quality sleep can decrease depressive symptoms and serve as regular maintenance for your mood. In fact, clinical studies have shown that sleep acts as a form of overnight therapy, making us better at handling strong emotions.
What’s the number one thing to do to improve sleep? Sleep Professor Dr Matthew Walker suggests waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, even during weekends. Finding eight hours of sleep ‘opportunity” every night, taking a hot bath before bedtime, setting the bedroom temperature to 18 degrees and having no screen time two hours before bedtime will also help.
As we’ve seen, nutrition, exercise, meditation and sleep are all proven medication-free ways to decrease symptoms of depression. And, yes, there’s an app to guide you through them all. The Flow therapy programme is free to download here and can help you to understand, treat and prevent depression.
Treat depression with brain stimulation
Brain stimulation has been used to treat depression for decades. Still, few people know about this option. First of all, the technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is very different from electric shock therapy (the current is 400 times weaker!).
In 2019, Flow Neuroscience developed a wireless headset that you can use at home to treat depressive symptoms. This is the first portable tDCS device approved for medical use in the UK and EU.
It delivers a constant low-strength electric current through two electrodes placed on the forehead to stimulate brain activity and help improve the symptoms of depression.
Randomised controlled trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the British Journal of Psychiatry showed that tDCS brain stimulation, of the type used in the Flow headset, had a similar impact to antidepressants, but with fewer and less severe side effects.
In the largest tDCS study to date, 24% of patients completely overcame their depression, while 41% found that at least half of their symptoms disappeared after six weeks.
There you have it. You don’t need pills to improve mental health. From getting better quality sleep to improving your eating habits and stimulating your brain, there are various lifestyle changes that can be made to reduce the risk and symptoms of depression. Best of all, you can use these techniques from the comfort of your own home.
Hanna Silva is a psychologist at Flow.
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