What is it?
For a rainbow to be a rainbow, all the colours must be there – from bright yellow to sombre indigo. A depressed mood is part of being human, but depression is more than just a mood. Depression is as much physiological as psychological: neurotransmitters produced by the body (including serotonin and dopamine), affect our thoughts and mood. Regarded as the common cold of psychiatry, depression is unfortunately for many, a lifelong companion.
Some signs that you might be depressed are given by beyondblue (beyondblue.org.au), the Australian organisation that deals with depression. They include:
- Unexplained moodiness.
- Irritability and frustration that is on the increase.
- An inability to hear personal criticism.
- Avoiding friends and family.
- Finding no pleasure in activities that should create pleasure (such as food, sex, exercise, etc).
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs.
- Avoiding work, school or other commitments.
- Increased fatigue or pain or other physical health complaints.
- Taking risks.
- Sluggish thoughts and actions.
A spell of depression is normal when grieving, after a separation and so on. However, if your depression doesn’t have an obvious cause, or has not lifted after six months, seek help. Depression is a condition that must be taken seriously.
What causes it?
- Negative life events (including abuse, poverty or illness and particularly events or situations stemming from childhood where we learn much of our behaviour), may contribute to later depression.
- If depression or anxiety taints your family tree, you have a higher risk of suffering this condition.
- Depression is not caused by a virus or bacteria, although occasionally infection may trigger a bout of depression.
- Other physical causes may include hormonal imbalance, low thyroid function and low iron levels. Get these checked also.
- Chronic illness or pain is a frequent cause of depression. In fact, if you suffer from a long-term health condition, it’s likely that you will also become depressed. Cortisol, the stress hormone that increases with any stressor (including illness) decreases serotonin, the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter. Low serotonin equals low happiness.
- Long-term stress. Relationship, financial, job or being a carer will increase cortisol.
- People who are at a life crossroads, or those who have recently experienced a high such as having a baby, getting married or graduating from studies can become depressed when the good times are over, with seemingly nothing to look forward to after months or years of expectation.
What to do
Any treatment for depression needs to work on both levels, psychological and physical. After all, mind and body are intimately connected. Regardless of the cause of depression, there are natural remedies as well as dietary and lifestyle changes that may help.
- When depressed, cooking and eating well might be difficult to do, but a poor diet will only contribute to the problem. If you live alone, perhaps invite a friend over once a week and make a point of cooking a nutritious and delicious meal. Freeze leftovers for later in the week.
- Erratic blood-sugar levels can influence mood. Keep blood-sugar levels steady by eating small meals containing protein every 2 to 3 hours. Avoid sugar.
- Reduce caffeine. Depression is associated with levels of caffeine above 700 mg daily (4–5 cups of coffee).
- Alcohol is a nervous-system depressant. In particular, beer should be avoided – it contains hops that may have a depressive effect on the body. You be the judge. If a glass or two of alcohol a day helps you to relax and your sleep and mood are not affected, then enjoy. If this is not the case, resist.
- Eat plenty of wholegrains, legumes, fresh fruit and vegetables to supply sufficient B vitamins, zinc and chromium – all nutrients important for optimum nervous-system function.
- People who enjoy the Mediterranean diet – where the emphasis is on vegetables, legumes, fish, olive oil and a splash of red wine – have lower levels of depression. This diet also offers other health benefits such as lower heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
- Oats are good for depression. Eat them in muesli or as porridge.
- Food allergies or sensitivities may also affect mood. If you notice your mood is changeable and can’t pick an obvious trigger, make a food diary for a couple of weeks and see if you can track a pattern.
- Avoid processed foods such as soft drinks, cordials, packaged food and takeaways.
- Certain foods can interact if you are taking a particular (older) class of antidepressants known as MAO (mono-amine-oxidase) inhibitors. Avoid all food sources of tyramine including aged cheeses, avocado, ripe bananas, broad beans, chicken liver, pickled herrings, wine, beer, yeast extract (for example vegemite) or an excess of licorice.
- St John’s wort is famous for banishing the blues. It is also the most frequently prescribed medication (herbal or pharmaceutical) for depression in Germany and is the most studied herb for depression. However, it is not the only effective herb. Others that have traditionally been used for melancholy include panax ginseng, damiana, tribulus, rhodiola, lemon balm and verbena. If you are considering taking St. John’s wort, let your doctor know as it may interact with certain medications.
- All the B vitamins are good for depression in one way or another. Take a fulsome B complex daily.
- The fatty acids EPA and especially DHA are needed for nervous-system and brain function. They can also help prevent and treat depression. Take 6 capsules or 5 mls of a strong supplement daily.
- SAM-e (or S-adenosyl methionine) is a natural compound that is made in the body, although production diminishes with age. It can help depression and is thought to be involved in the creation and transport of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, both important for mood stabilisation.
- L-tryptophan is an amino acid that can convert to serotonin in the body. B3, B6 and magnesium are also necessary for the conversion.
- Royal jelly is an excellent tonic for the nervous system. It is particularly high in B5 which assists the adrenal glands. Take 1 vial or capsule each morning. (Important: do not take royal jelly if you are allergic to bees.)
- The Bach flower Mustard is good if your depression is like a dark cloud above you, coming on without apparent reason, whereas Gorse is the remedy for despondency.
- Exercise alone has a tremendous impact on improving mood. By the 1970s, scientists discovered that endorphins (chemicals produced in the brain), function to deaden pain, improve mood and have a tranquillising effect. Endorphins, our natural opiates, are released during vigorous exercise, and are thought to be behind the phenomenon of ‘runners’ high’. When you are depressed, you probably won’t feel like exercising. Too bad. Make a pact with yourself that you will do some exercise every day for 10 days. Guaranteed you will feel brighter.
- Low thyroid activity and low iron levels can be the cause of depression. Get some blood tests to at least disqualify these variables.
- The pineal gland is a tiny pea-shaped organ sitting neatly near the base of the brain. It was described by Descartes as the ‘seat of the soul’. The pineal behaves as a biological clock, keeping our bodies in sync with the rhythms of nature, the seasons, day and night and adjusting our physiology to the environment. It translates light signals into nerve impulses, which in turn stimulate the endocrine glands to produce hormones such as melatonin. It is due to this mechanism that lack of sunlight may contribute to depression. Although we live in a sunlit land, many Australians work inside for much of the day or cover up from the sun. Artificial lights do not seem to have the same beneficial effect as daylight. Sunlight contains the full spectrum of colours including ultraviolet and infrared. Walking in the sunlight for 20 minutes a day is enough to activate the pineal gland. Early morning sunlight is said to have a particularly beneficial effect.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a particular variety of depression that starts in the autumn and disappears in the spring. Colder, darker nations are particularly susceptible. The treatment for SAD is simply sunlight.
- The Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who lived in the first century AD wrote that ‘men feel disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them’. There is nothing to be lost and much to be gained by seeking professional psychological guidance. A good psychiatrist or psychologist will gently help you to unravel and heal the hurt inside. Even if you have to kiss a few frogs before finding the right therapist, be courageous.
- Notice your internal dialogue – or monologue, depending on how bad things are in there! Negative self talk such as, ‘You are no good at blah’ or ‘No wonder your life is s&$!’ ain’t going to help you.
- Wear bright colours. Red, orange, yellow. Bring a smile to your dial. Bypass black.
- Drinking morning urine (amaroli) has been used in certain cultures for depression and insomnia. Interestingly, melatonin is present in morning urine in significant quantities. Urine straight from the healthy bladder is free from germs. Best to drink your own, not a friend’s!
- Gather things of beauty. Florence Nightingale wrote in 1859 in her Notes on nursing that ‘The effect in sickness of beautiful objects is hardly at all appreciated. [They are an] actual means of recovery.’ Way to go, Flo. Keep beautiful objects around you and witness natural things of beauty, trees, flowers, animals.
The sense of smell bypasses the cognitive part of the brain and stimulates the limbic system (the primitive emotional brain). Aromatherapy oils are a wonderful way of calming and lifting mood. Use as a perfume, an aromatherapy candle in the bathroom, some drops in your bath or as a vaporiser in your workspace or bedroom. Aromatherapy oils used for depression include basil, lavender, neroli, Roman chamomile, frankincense and bergamot.
Blend the following oils with jojoba oil for a personal perfume. Or, omit the basil and use in a spray bottle with some essential oil dispersant (use orange flower or rose water as the base) and spray onto your pillow or bed linen before retiring. Use this blend in 30 ml of sweet almond oil for a relaxing full body massage or sprinkle 10 drops into 125 g of Epsom salts and mix into the bath water. Lay back and relax.
- 1 drop of ylang ylang oil – sedative, antidepressant, nervine, aphrodisiac, euphoric
- 2 drops of basil oil – uplifting and clearing to the mind, nervine, antidepressant
- 3 drops of neroli oil – antidepressant, nervous tension, stress
- 4 drops of lavender oil – hypotensive, antidepressant, nervine, sedative
- 5 drops of bergamot oil – uplifting, antidepressant, tonifying
At a glance
- Avoid or reduce alcohol. It is a nervous-system depressant.
- Keep blood-sugar levels steady to steady your mood. Avoid sugar and coffee and eat small meals frequently, making sure each meal contains some protein.
- The Mediterranean diet – with lots of vegetables, legumes, fish and olive oil – is associated with lower levels of depression.
- Horses are given oats to pep them up. Why don’t you give them a go? Eat them every morning as muesli or porridge.
- St John’s wort is a proven herb for treating depression. Other herbs for the blues include panax ginseng, damiana, tribulus, rhodiola, lemon balm and verbena.
- The nervous system relies on the B group of vitamins. Make sure you have plenty by taking a multi-B vitamin each day.
- EPA and DHA are the omega 3 fatty acids that have been extensively studied for their mood-enhancing activities. Take as a supplement daily.
- Even though it might feel like the last thing you want to do, exercise increases endorphins and serotonin levels – both important for tackling depression.
- Sunshine is an excellent medicine for both mind and mood. Acting via the pineal gland in the brain, sunlight activates mood-enhancing hormones. Get outside now.
- Get checked for low thyroid hormones and iron levels. Sometimes depression is purely physical.
- Watch your self-talk. If you catch yourself thinking negative things about yourself or your situation, notice it, and distract yourself by thinking of something you enjoy or find beautiful. Depressed thoughts beget depressed thoughts – the opposite is true, too.
- Seek help. There is no shame, and much to gain, in seeing a counsellor to help you through this difficult time.