Natural remedies for depression are not only realistic, but appear more powerful than the treatments the medical industry has come up with. And unlike therapy and drugs, they’re free and can be done by people at any time without outside assistance or insurance coverage.
In this article and video we’re going to dive into two of the natural remedies for depression research has shown work together synergistically to help people become far happier. But first, we’re going to explore why the traditional approaches aren’t all that effective.
The Failure Of Drugs
Overcoming depression under a doctor’s care can be tricky business.
Most of the prescribed treatments revolve around two classes of drugs: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and mood stabilizers.
They’re hypothesized to work by normalizing the chemicals in the brain that affect mood, and are widely prescribed based on this premise. But how well do they work?
A meta analysis of all depression drug research submitted to the USDA found that, “compared
with placebo, the new-generation (approved since 1987) antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these (most severely depressed) patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication”1.
In other words, the drugs don’t work unless you’re very, very depressed, and even then their effect is only seen against the background of the control group because they’re so down in the dumps that the placebo effect doesn’t seem to kick in.
Even when patients show some signs of improvement on these drugs, they often relapse after a short time2.
With such dismal results, it’s hard to suggest drugs as a viable treatment modality, especially when there are natural remedies for depression people can try out first.
Therapy Is Of Little Value
Various therapy modalities may seem like better options than drugs. There are dozens of therapy styles, and some therapists may be better than others.
The most popular type used to combat depression is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which seeks to change the the way patients think. CBT therapists try to teach patients to identify distorted thought patterns and beliefs, and replace them with more productive ways of looking at reality.
All of this sounds great on paper, and initial studies showed CBT to be the most effective therapy for depression, but does it consistently work across dozens of studies looking are thousands of patients? A large meta-analysis reviewing controlled trials found that CBT creates only a very small improvement in depressed people, but may be somewhat more effective in preventing relapses of depression3.
But, perhaps because some therapists accidentally get patients to consider their dark thoughts and less-than-satisfactory circumstances even more than they already are, a minority of those undergoing various therapy modalities get worse 4.
So Therapy does offer some benefits over drugs, but the effects aren’t huge, it makes some people worse, it takes a lot of dedication from the therapist and the patient, and it costs significant amounts of money.
Maybe there’s something a bit easier?
Natural Remedies For Depression
Over the years, a number of natural treatment modalities have shown surprising mood enhancing effects. Excluding various foods from the diet and consuming lots of others has been shown to make people happier, for instance.
Among the natural remedies for depression, meditation often gets the most resistance. Despite several hundred studies showing it to be incredibly effective at improving the lives of people in a variety of ways, most people still see it as very “woo woo,” and out there, or as something unsuited for them because their mind wandered the one time they tried it.
But meditation is merely the ongoing act of bringing the attention back to the present moment whenever thoughts pull it away. It is a continuous and ever improving – but probably never mastered – attempt to not be caught up in thoughts. It’s more practical and everyday than it is spiritual or woo woo.
So how does meditation tie into depression?
One of the well documented signs of depression is a decreased ability to exert “cognitive control”, a broad term that covers planning, self control, problem solving, and mental flexibility5
This loss of cognitive control likely leads to an increase in what researchers call, “rumination,” wherein depressed people continuously repeat negative memories and thoughts about past and current problems6; they just can’t stop the cascade of negative thoughts.
When we’re stuck compulsively thinking about our troubles, it’s harder to concentrate on things other than our troubles, including learning, healthy decision making, or anything positive which might cause us to feel better 7.
Meditation has been shown to decrease the symptoms of depression significantly, perhaps because it trains the brain to remain focused in the moment and not be caught up in these negative thoughts. It also strengthens cognitive control.89 It also has some other important elements, which we’ll cover later.
Aerobic exercise is one of the best natural remedies for depression because its effects kick in quickly, and the barrier of entry is extremely low.
When researchers at the Cochrane Library reviewed 35 studies of depressed patients put into aerobic exercise groups and compared with others given standard or placebo treatments they found exercise by itself worked really well10.
They established a scale where a difference between the exercise group and the traditional treatment group or placebo of 0.2 represented a small effect, 0.5 a moderate effect, and 0.8 a large effect.
In all the studies combined, there was a -0.62 difference in depression symptoms among those who exercised compared to the control or traditional treatment group, which is a significant improvement.
Researchers think exercise relieves depression by enhancing the action of endorphins, which are natural chemicals that circulate in the body. Endorphins improve mood, reduce pain, and increase immunity. It’s also hypothesized that exercise stimulates the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which may directly improve mood.
The Synergy Of Meditation And Aerobic Exercise
Are two natural remedies for depression better than one?
Some researchers have an alternate theory on how depression may come about, and how people can relieve it.
Neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells, happens continuously in healthy people, but it seems to peter out in depressed people and those under continual stress 11.
So a group of researchers wondered if creating a regime that would spur the creation of neurons – and then keep them from dying off quickly – might also relieve depression.
The first part is straight forward. We’ve known for decades that strenuous aerobic exercise in humans greatly increased the number of neurons being created 12. The same thing happens with animals. A mouse that runs on a wheel with create twice as many neurons as a sedentary mouse13.
But how do you keep those neurons from dying off quickly?
Even in healthy, undepressed people, many newly-created neurons die off in a few weeks, long before they’ve grown into mature neurons14 But those neurons will stay alive if the human brain engages in learning that is both challenging and successful. 15
So researchers decided to combine mental and physical training – the two elements that would create and preserve neurons – and study how they would affect the mood and brains of depressed and healthy people when combined16. The exercise chosen was running and biking, and the learning was meditation.
Twice a week for eight weeks, the subjects – 22 depressed people, and 30 healthy people – started off their treatment sessions with meditation and finished with exercise.
The subjects started with 20 minutes of seated meditation. They were instructed to follow their breath, and when their attention wandered, to bring it back to the breath. After the seated meditation, the participants switched to a slow-walking meditation for 10 minutes. The focused their attention on their feet as they transitioned from one foot to the other in a slow walk.
Finally, they got on treadmills and exercise bikes to spend 30 minutes exercising at 50 to 70% of their V02 max, which had been predetermined by the researchers.
The results were pretty incredible for both the depressed and healthy subjects.
The depressed subjects reduced their symptoms by 40 percent, and were less likely to mull over bad memories or worry about the future. Even the healthy group felt happier.
On a computerized test, the depressed subjects improved their ability to concentrate, and scan of their brain activity showed their prefrontal cortex had begun acting almost exactly like that of someone without depression.
Considering that they were only doing this twice a week, those results are pretty incredible, and far more powerful than exercise or meditation alone, or the effects of drugs or therapy.
Getting Started With Meditation:
If you’d like to learn more about how to meditate without going crazy, check out my free Beginner’s Guide To Meditation.
It will walk you through some different meditations to experiment with and answer some of the most frequently asked questions.
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BL Alderman. Et al. MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depression and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Citation: Transl Psychiatry (2016) 6, e726; doi:10.1038/tp.2015.225 ↩