Out of the Blues
MOVE YOUR BODY Exercise is as effective as any antidepressant in reversing depression symptoms and has no negative side effects, numerous studies have found. “If you don’t exercise, you won’t make ‘happy mood’ chemicals like serotonin and endorphins or reduce your stress levels,” says Hyman, who advises exercising for at least 30 minutes, three to five days a week.
FEED YOUR HEAD Your brain is mostly made up of fat, primarily docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), so nourishing it with omega-3 fatty acids is essential. If you’re not getting enough omega-3s (most of us are deficient), blues-busting brain chemicals won’t be properly utilized. Omega-3s also reduce inflammation throughout your body, yet another contributor to mood disorders. Gordon recommends taking 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams of omega-3s daily, at least half of which are EPA and DHA. Try: Barleans Omega Swirl Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplement in Mango Peach flavor ($20 for 12 ounces; barleans.com)
GO WITH YOUR GUT Most of your body’s bliss-boosting serotonin is produced in your gut, not your brain. That means the levels of “good” and “bad” bacteria in your intestines may affect your state of mind. Hyman has seen this “second-brain” effect in patients who feel depressed because years of taking antibiotics have altered their digestive flora and affected their “gut brain,” which in turn affects their “head brain.” You can eat fermented foods like tempeh, sauerkraut or kimchi, or take probiotics. Try: American Health Probiotic CD ($30 for 60 tablets; luckyvitamin.com)
AVOID VITAMIN D-FICIENCY If you live where the sun doesn’t shine much or you never let the rays hit your skin without first slathering on the SPF, low vitamin D levels may be the culprit behind your depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in winter. The sunshine-triggered vitamin helps regulate an enzyme essential in the production of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine. If sun exposure is not an option, research indicates that you should supplement with at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily. Try: Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 ($16 for 120 softgels; nordicnaturals.com)
BE SURE TO GET YOUR B’S Without enough B vitamins, your brain can’t properly regulate mood-affecting neurotransmitters. Hyman suggests taking 800 micrograms daily of a food-based folate supplement (not folic acid, the synthetic form); 500 to 1,000 micrograms of B12; and 25 to 50 milligrams of B6. Try: Innate Response Formulas Folate, B6 & B12 ($25 for 90 tablets; pureformulas.com)
FOLLOW A MEDITERRANEAN DIET When followed consistently, this heart-healthy diet has also been shown to lower depression risk by 30 percent. Staples include cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines; dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale and collards; beans, nuts and seeds; and olive oil.
CUT OUT JUNK FOOD Sugar briefly energizes you until you crash, physically and emotionally, and it also causes inflammation in the brain, Hyman says; the artificial sweetener aspartame has been shown to deplete serotonin; and trans fats cause inflammation and raise depression risk by 48 percent, a Spanish study found. You might also try an elimination diet to see if certain foods are not ideal for your body. Hyman has seen longtime depression sufferers drop dairy and gluten—two causes of brain inflammation—and their depression lifts enough that they can go off the meds they’d relied on for years.
DON’T DROWN YOUR SORROWS While drinking might seem to provide a temporary lift, alcohol is a known depressant that alters brain chemistry and mood. “If you’re drinking to avoid feeling sad or dealing with your problems, you need to steer clear of alcohol completely,” says Meredith Sagan, M.D., founder of Holistic Psychiatry in Santa Monica, Calif. Do not deny yourself wine at a party, but she advises stopping after one glass.
BEWARE OF BPA Avoid eating foods from cans or drinking water from plastic bottles when possible because of potential bisphenol-A (BPA) exposure. This toxin alters the nervous system, and studies show it may be linked to depression and cognitive decline.
MEDITATE BEFORE YOU MEDICATE “We’re constantly triggered emotionally by people or situations that send an overwhelming flood of fight-or-flight stress hormones into our bodies,” Sagan says. “Meditation can help us become less reactive and more observant of our emotions and stressors so we’re not as prone to depression and anxiety as a result.” Studies have found that regular meditation can be just as effective as SSRIs in preventing a relapse of depression.
BREATHE DEEPLY Gordon recommends a four-minute deep-breathing technique in which you focus on your softened, relaxed belly rising when you inhale and falling when you exhale. “MRI scans show that regular slow, deep meditative breathing lights up the parts of our brains that are connected with optimistic thoughts and more relaxed feelings,” he says.
DEAL WITH YOUR ISSUES Antidepressants can sometimes diminish the ability to feel emotions, and they don’t address what may have triggered depression in the first place. It’s often clear when a life event like losing your job is the cause, but Sagan says that a childhood trauma can affect how you cope with stressful situations later in life and could predispose you to depression. Many studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy—learning to “reframe” negative thought patterns and reactions—is more effective than drugs in easing depression symptoms and reducing relapse.