Did you know that more than 16 million Americans struggle with depression and up to 23 percent of women between the ages of 40 and 50 are currently taking prescribed antidepressant medications? Depression can be a debilitating condition that can prevent people from living a healthy and full life, and in the United States, it is an increasing concern as the number of cases are on the rise.
“While antidepressants, when combined with counseling, provide an effective avenue for healing it is not the only way,” says Michael Stouder, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group. “For more mild cases of depression, we have seen some great results from a more natural approach to healing,” he states.
“Practices, such as yoga and meditation, that involve the conscious relaxation of muscles, have been shown to decrease the symptoms of stress and anxiety, and evoke feelings of joy and well-being,” says Dr. Stouder. Other techniques that require intense mental focus, such as tai chi, can also help you to develop a conscious awareness of the negative thoughts, and teach you how to observe them without necessarily engaging with them. “Several studies have shown that these simple techniques when combined with healthy eating and cardiovascular exercise can help relieve the symptoms of depression,” he says.
So, what steps can you take to feel happier, naturally?
Practice conscious awareness through deep breathing exercises.
When we are depressed, the sad and negative thoughts become overwhelming. Deep breathing, and focusing on the breath, allows us to take a step back, in our minds, and observe the thoughts and be aware of them, without actually engaging with them. Dr. Stouder says, “If you think of each of those negative thoughts as individual people, conscious awareness through deep breathing exercise is like people watching. You observe the thoughts (people) coming toward you and then they walk past you, without you interacting with them.” This process of observing and letting go, allows you to acknowledge that these thoughts do exist, but realize that they are nothing more than drifters, passing through, and therefore do not require action.
When we are anxious, stressed or emotionally upset, we tend to take short, shallow breaths, which causes our body to tense up and release the stress hormone, cortisol. But when we breathe deeply and slowly, the part of our brain that is responsible for releasing the hormone that reduces stress and relaxes muscles is activated.
Kick the simple carbs to the curb.
The food we eat has a big impact on our mental and emotional health. Many research studies have shown that individuals whose diets are higher in simple carbohydrates and sugars are more prone to developing depression. If you’ve ever felt like taking a nap after a big bowl of pasta, or felt suddenly energetic after eating a slice of cake, only to feel lethargic minutes later, you have already experienced the adverse effects that these foods have on our bodies and our moods. “Bread, pasta and raw sugars serve little or no purpose when it comes to nourishing the brain. Spikes in blood sugar, caused by these foods not only destabilize our mood but are also known to contribute to other health conditions such as coronary heart disease and diabetes,” says Dr. Stouder.
“When we are experiencing symptoms of depression, our reaction is to find a quick fix,” Dr. Stouder adds. “But eating a chocolate bar or a slice of pizza is only contributing to the problem.” By adapting our eating habits and swapping out the quick fixes found in simple carbs, for the more nutritious complex carbs found in foods such as whole grain cereals, rice, fruits, vegetables and legumes, we will have a long-term solution that offers more than temporary relief. It provides a permanent path to healing and balance.
“Many of my patients say they just don’t have time to exercise,” says Dr. Stouder, “and I can completely appreciate that. But what we need to realize is that exercise is just as vital to our health as water or food is. It nourishes our body and our brain by providing full body stimulation and triggering the production of mood-elevating chemicals such as serotonin that help to keep our bodies and minds balanced.”
Studies have shown that as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise, three days a week, can help reduce the symptoms of depression; and, if maintained over time, it may eliminate them altogether. “On top of the physical rewards that come with exercise, we’ve also found that exercising to manage depression, gives patients a sense of empowerment and control over their condition. It provides a greater sense of accomplishment, and self-confidence,” Dr. Stouder suggests. It also has the added benefit of keeping your heart healthy and your body in shape, which boosts your self-image.
Meditation, healthy eating and exercise are a winning combination to help fight the symptoms of depression and offer a natural path to healing, but in more severe cases of depression an alternative route that involves a combination of antidepressants and therapy may be required. “If you are experiencing signs of depression, talk to your health care provider. They will be able to design a care and healing program that is right for you, and get you back on the right path to living a full, happy life,” Dr. Stouder concludes.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.