Every few years, the Health & Social Care Information Centre publishes a survey of the psychological problems the British public experiences. Approximately 25 per cent of people here experience depression, anxiety, or mixed depression and anxiety every year. Most of us either grab at a synthetic antidepressant or simply suffer through it in silence. Before feeling compelled to adopt one of these two approaches, you should try some natural strategies first that may help you combat depression.
Mindfulness sounds like a new fad, but it is actually a centuries-old approach that many mainstream Western psychologists have just examined and found to be effective. The idea is taken directly from Eastern meditation practices. It involves sitting quietly and focusing on the present.
You can start by concentrating on your breathing. Feel how the air feels when it moves in and out of your lungs. Listen to your heart rate. Flex your muscles and count all the different sensations of this simple movement. Can you taste anything in your mouth? If you sit in a quiet room, you will be astounded at how many sounds you can still hear around you. Count them. Pull your attention straight back to present sensations when you feel your mind wander.
In a scientific literature review of 39 studies with 1,140 participants who received mindfulness therapy, Dr. Stefan Hofmann from Boston University found in 2010 that most studies concluded that mindfulness was an effective treatment for anxiety and mood problems. Even better, the effects seem to last with mindfulness having a lower relapse rate than most other psychological therapies.
The effect is primarily explained via the depression sufferers' ability to take control of their thinking. Depression is easily exacerbated when sufferers focus on depressing events. They dwell on their mistakes, on all their perceived shortcomings, on the emptiness of their current lives, on the meaninglessness of their jobs, on distressing past events, on the luxuries that they cannot afford, and so forth. The more they reflect on these issues, the more depressed they become.
Mindfulness breaks this cycle by teaching them to pull their attention away from these depressing issues back to the present.
Combine Mindfulness with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Once depression sufferers have learnt to control the focus of their attention, another good step is to alter the negative beliefs that they hold about themselves and their lives together with some of their behaviours.
For example, if they believe they are unlovable, they can learn to alter that belief together with the behaviours that may make them difficult to live with. This deliberate alteration of beliefs and behaviours is called cognitive behavioural therapy. It works well precisely because most of people's negative beliefs are basically false or at least greatly exaggerated.
When mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy are combined, it is an effective treatment against depression that cuts the risk of relapse from 78 to 36 per cent for severely depressed people who have had three or more episodes in their lives.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
It is not only psychological therapies that work, however. Nutrition is also important.
After several researchers found that the blood and tissue of people with depression were low in omega-3 fatty acids, they became a topic of interest in psychiatric research. This study found that it was a good treatment for major depression, this one found it to be effective for moderately severe borderline personality disorder, and this one for bipolar (also called manic depressive) disorder.
In a review of the scientific literature, two academics found in 2005 that five of six double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in schizophrenia, and four of six such trials in depression found omega-3 fatty acids to be effective. Of the two main types of Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, the effect seems to stem primarily from EPA rather than from DHA.
It should also be noted that most of these studies gave the omega-3 to people who were already receiving a course of antidepressants that they believed was ineffective. In other words, people on antidepressants who also received omega-3 improved, while people on antidepressants who received a placebo did not improve.
Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If EPA and DHA are the more important omega-3 fatty acids to help combat depression, you want to stock up on fish oil and fish oil supplements. Anchovies, fresh water trout, sardines, tuna, salmon, herring, and mackerel are the best fish, while marine algae and its oil can supply vegetarians with some of their required omega-3. UnoCardio 1000 is a great omega-3 fish oil supplement for those who do not consume enough fresh fish every week.
Vegetarians can also consume ALA, a plant-based Omega-3 fatty acid, found in flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, and soybean oil. While the conversion is not particularly productive, some people can convert a small amount of ALA to EPA and DHA. Organic Flax Seed Oil is a good omega-3 supplement for vegetarians and vegans.
The human body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight. As people spend more time indoors and cover themselves in sunscreen when they go outdoors, vitamin D deficiency is gradually becoming more common.
Like with omega-3, some studies have found that vitamin D deficiency occurs more frequently in people with anxiety and depression. Based on these findings, other researchers decided to test whether vitamin D supplementation could relieve the symptoms of depression. This appeared to be the case.
In 2008, a Norwegian research team gave 441 subjects different levels of vitamin D supplementation and discovered that those with the highest levels were also the ones who experienced the most relief from their depression symptoms. Nine years before that, some physicians already understood that a vitamin D supplement could help people with seasonal affective disorder, a condition that renders sufferers depressed during the winter and fully functional during the summer.
As not enough can be obtained from food sources, vitamin D must be taken as a supplement.
In an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses, two Texan researchers presented the case histories of some severely depressed people who recovered rapidly after being given 125-300 mg of magnesium with each meal and at bedtime.
They speculated that a magnesium deficiency may result from the fact that 84 per cent of the magnesium found in whole grains is removed when it is refined, and that magnesium has been removed from most drinking water supplies.
A well designed 2012 study on 402 Iranian postgraduate students studying in Malaysia, a group prone to depression, found that higher magnesium intake mediated the risk of depression.
A coral calcium and magnesium and supplement may help with daily magnesium supplementation, while a good alkaline water filter can add a bit of magnesium to every glass of water you drink.
While the scientific literature is not unanimous, some researchers have concluded that people with depression have lower levels of vitamin B12 in their blood. In fact, according to another study, the subjects with vitamin B12 deficiency were 2.05 times as likely to be severely depressed as were non-deficient subjects.
There is also some literature that shows that subjects given vitamin B12 supplementation experienced an improvement in their depression symptoms, while those whose B12 levels remained the same did not improve.
Luckily, it is easy to consume enough vitamin B12. If you do not eat meat and fish, in which it appears in abundance, most tofu is fortified with it. Many brands of almond milk and cereals are also fortified, and you can also occasionally eat some yeast extract spreads, like marmite. Keep this latter to the minimum, however, as such spreads are acidic and high in sodium.
Do not overlook the benefits of daily exercise. This does not have to be painful. Spending just half an hour per day outside in nature can be beneficial. That is one of the greatest benefits of dog ownership; you feel bad when you skip your daily walk!