How to overcome depression with a holistic approach
Are exercise and diet natural antidepressants? It’s a lovely idea, and some studies have found that regular exercise may be just as effective to treat mild to moderate depression as drugs. But an analysis of 14 studies in the British Medical Journal found that much of the research was flawed, and concluded that exercise should not replace standard depression treatment – especially in severe illness.
But the report also stressed the benefit of exercise to overcome depression. This is not as contradictory as it may sound. Exercise does have other health benefits and these may have a knock-on effect on mood. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of depression, while depression increases the risk of a sedentary lifestyle. In turn, being a “couch potato” can increase the risk of heart disease, which can increases the risk of depression.
Thus exercise may add an additional dimension to standard treatment. The UK Department of Health recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity for adults on five or more days a week. This should be of at least a moderate intensity – similar to brisk walking – and can be taken in 10-15 minute bouts throughout the day.
There is a widespread assumption that diet affects mood. Undoubtedly it does in that sensible eating helps create or maintain good health, without which people are more likely to suffer mood disorders. Certain dietary deficiencies – of the ‘B’ vitamins, for example, have been linked with depression, and so have both low-fat diets (below 25% fat intake) and diets containing high quantities of saturated fats (generally, those that are hard at room temperature, such as butter and other animal fats). Alcohol, sugar and caffeine may give a short-term lift, but tend in the long-term to make depression and anxiety worse rather than better.
High carbohydrate diets are sometimes recommended for people with depression, on the speculative basis that carbohydrates act on the brain in a similar way to serotonin. However, the evidence for specific “antidepressant foods” is scant. To date only one type of nutrient – omega-3 fatty acids which are found mainly in oily fish, and some nuts and seeds – has been consistently reported to help combat low mood.
Holistic approaches to treating mental disorders are starting to attract scientific study and in time, perhaps, a proven “antidepressant lifestyle” may emerge. For the moment, though, the most that can be said with certainty is that the chances of a full recovery from depression are enhanced if the person can maintain a generally healthy regime.
Eating an adequate and balanced diet: This means including all the major food groups: complex carbohydrates (staples such as rice, cereals, bread, pasta), protein (from meat, fish, nuts, poultry), fats (mainly unsaturated oils) and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (five or more portions a day). Go easy on alcohol and caffeine, and avoid “junk food” high in sugar and saturated fat.
Sleeping sufficiently: But not too much. Most people do best on 7-8 hours sleep nightly. Bizarre as it may seem, a single short bout of sleep deprivation (3 hours or less sleep within a 24-hour period) can sometimes produce an astonishing lift of mood for a short period thereafter, and is worth trying if you know you have a couple of days when you know you will not have to drive, or operate machinery, or do anything else that requires sustained concentration. It is not a long-term solution, however, and you should not attempt to deprive yourself of sleep for more than two nights in a row.
Exercise: If the prospect of half an hour’s daily exercise seems daunting, begin with just a few minutes and slowly increase the amount you do each day. Make sure you exert yourself enough to increase your heart rate at least slightly above normal, and try to do it in the fresh air and, ideally, in varying surroundings.
Relaxation: Regular meditation, yoga, aromatherapy and massage help to promote a feeling of wellbeing and can be helpful for depression, especially if it is associated with agitation and anxiety.