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Treat Depression Without Drugs


I was depressed for many years. Life felt hollow. I often had the sense that nothing I could do today could possibly matter anyway. The one therapist I saw recommended after a series of visits that I take anti-depressants. I refused. I know that medication may help some people, but I was absolutely certain that I did not want to take a drug to feel normal. Intuitively I knew that there were more sustainable options. Even though there were years where I thought at least once daily about suicide I decided to keep my mental health in my own hands. I tried a lot of things. Perhaps you’ve heard of the studies saying that smiling in the mirror is more effective than Prozac? It feels ridiculous. Then it works. Today I love my life. I got here through a wealth of techniques, some detailed below, all of which are now a part of my approach to coaching others through shifting their consciousness.

Almost as uplifting as mirrored smiles is to see the tides in popular medicine turn away from over prescribing and towards exploring options with no negative side effects. An article recently published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience by its editor in chief takes a look at a number of recent studies and summarizes what we are now learning about how to treat depression without drugs.

This article looks primarily at studies focusing on the neurotransmitter serotonin, but mentions dopamine and tryptophan as well. All three of these are known to have correlation with mood, specifically with depression. Serotonin in particular is often the target of pharmacologic approaches to treating depression.

The author, Simon N Young, put alternate treatments into 4 categories:

1. Cultivate Positive Thoughts

The current medical paradigm focuses on the fact that increasing serotonin seems to lead to a sense of well-being and more positive thinking. Only recently have we had the technology to look at the impact of actively choosing to think positive thoughts. Low and behold it works! The psychological term for this method is “positive mood induction”. The techniques used in studies I have seen range from looking at cartoons to joy based writing exercises to cultivating positive thoughts, much like a mantra or incantation. However it is accomplished, it is becoming clear that when we choose to think positively our brain chemistry changes. As Young points out, “This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin.” Not the least bit shocking to me, but scientists don’t rely on intuition, they require data. Finally, we have some data. The opposite of this is also being proven scientifically in other studies. Hostility can kill you. There are even strong correlations with hostility and coronary heart disease.

I often times have clients work with a mantra or incantation to train their mind to work in the way they choose. It is amazing just how plastic our patterns are. When you wake up every day and repeat a phrase or body movement it does not take long for the body/mind to begin expecting this. Pretty soon you wake up and the same thoughts and energy that you were forcefully cultivating are now happening on their own. What we often fail to recognize is that the thoughts in our head were not created by our genetics. They came from our environment. When we are mature we can choose to take an active role in thought creation rather than just receive what our situation offers.

2. Get More Sunlight

I am a HUGE believer in this one as well. We did not evolve indoors basking in the glow of a computer monitor. Perhaps one day computer monitors will emit something closer to sunlight, for now our best bet is to get outdoors more or buy therapeutic lighting. From the author, “Relatively few generations ago, most of the world population was involved in agriculture and was outdoors for much of the day.” The information age has many benefits, but it may not be so great for our happiness. Sunlight stimulates serotonin. In studies “there was also a positive correlation between serotonin synthesis and the hours of sunlight on the day the measurements were made, independent of season.”

So far two treatments for depression, both free, both without side effects (don’t tan until you burn people).

3. Exercise

Again, the blindingly obvious bell may be going off in some of your heads. Still, I wonder how many psychiatrists insist on prescribing exercise to increase serotonin before they will consider pharmacologic options. The fact that scientific data is now being gathered to measure the effects that exercise has on serotonin levels is hopeful. This information is getting to the people who make decisions. “In the United Kingdom the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence…recommends treating mild clinical depression with various strategies, including exercise rather than antidepressants, because the risk–benefit ratio is poor for antidepressant use in patients with mild depression.” Young also points out that “as with exposure to bright light, there has been a large change in the level of vigorous physical exercise experienced since humans were hunter-gatherers or engaged primarily in agriculture.” Maybe there is something to this treadmill desk trend.

4. Diet

“The fourth factor,” that Young says could “play a role in raising brain serotonin is diet.” This one is also huge. If you want to look again at the ways that our lifestyles have changed in the past few hundred years go no further than the local supermarket. Almost everything other than the outer, fresh food aisles, are a relatively new invention. Some of this our bodies know what to do with. Much of it, in my experience, is depressing. Since I started out as a Holistic Health Counselor I always work with my clients on their dietary choices. This is primary. I’ve said it a thousand times before and I will repeat it here: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. It’s worth pointing out that this quote is from Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician generally regarded as the father of modern Western medicine.

When I battled depression and now when I work with clients I take an even more integral approach. I look at how the four things above interact with an individuals relationships, work, spirituality, sense of purpose and numerous other areas of their life. It is time we as a culture get over looking for the single cause for anything. Life is too rich to be pigeonholed. It is great to see science waking up to the power of holistic approaches to health and well-being. I chose to call my business Lifestyle Integrity because I believe that nothing other than a truly integrated approach can create sustainable change.