16 Science-Backed Ways to Overcome Depression Naturally
Depression is a serious condition that demands a doctor’s treatment. But the following lifestyle changes may give you a boost if you’re feeling low.
Spend at least one hour each week with a close friend
In a British study, when 86 depressed women were paired with a volunteer friend, 65 percent of the women felt better. In fact, regular social contact worked as effectively as antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. Regular social contact with a close friend may boost self-confidence and encourage you to make other positive changes that will help in overcoming depression, such as starting an exercise program. Watch out for these hidden signs of depression.
Play with a dog a few minutes every day
When non-pet owners played with a dog for just a few minutes a day as part of a University of Missouri study, blood levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and oxytocin—both mood elevators—rose. Science has already proven these surprising health benefits of having a pet, but you don’t need to own a dog to experience these feel-good effects for overcoming depression (although dogs are great antidotes to the kind of chronic stress that can result in depression). Pet your neighbor’s dog for a few minutes a day, volunteer at an animal shelter, or stop by your local pet store for some furry one-on-one therapy.
Get a 12-minute massage three times a week
Whether you pay a professional or ask a spouse or friend to rub your back, the result is the same: a natural mood boost. In a study of depressed dialysis patients, participants who received a 12-minute massage three times a week were less depressed than those who didn’t get the soothing rub. Another study of 84 depressed pregnant women found those who received two 20-minute massages a week from their partners reduced their incidence of depression 70 percent. Researchers suspect massage boosts serotonin levels (which jumped 17 percent in the women who received twice-weekly massages) and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, both equally helpful results when overcoming depression. These everyday habits up your risk for depression.
Drink one to two cups of coffee or tea each morning
Regular, modest caffeine intake decreases the risk of depression by more than 50 percent, says Edward J. Cumella, PhD, a licensed psychologist and director of research and education for the Remuda Ranch Treatment Centers in Wickenburg, Arizona.
Look for mood-boosting foods
Walnuts, kiwi, bananas, sour cherries, pineapple, tomatoes, and plums are all naturally high in serotonin and ideal grocery list items for anyone overcoming depression. You can also eat foods high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that your body converts to serotonin, a natural mood booster. Tryptophan is commonly found in proteins such as turkey, fish, chicken, cottage cheese, nuts, cheese, eggs, and beans. Consuming high-carbohydrate foods also encourages the amino acid tryptophan to flood your brain, boosting serotonin levels. A slice of whole-wheat bread slathered with honey, a snack of air-popped popcorn: look for whole grains, as white flour will provide similar benefits but its effects wear off quickly.
Get more omega-3s
A Dutch study found that people who consume diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat found in cold-water fish such as salmon and mackerel, were less likely to suffer from depression than people whose diets were low in this important fat. Another study, this one conducted in England, found that pregnant women who didn’t eat fish had twice the rate of depression as women who ate 10 ounces of fish a day. In fact, one reason researchers think the rate of depression has skyrocketed in this country is that we get so few omega-3 fatty acids in our diets. Another good idea for getting your omega-3s: Keep a container of ground flaxseed in the fridge. Flaxseeds, walnuts, soybeans, kidney beans, and black beans are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You should never, ever say these things to someone with depression.
Take your vitamins
Ask your doctor if you should take 600 milligrams of chromium picolinate a day; in a study completed at Duke University, people with atypical depression—characterized by mood swings, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, and lethargy—boosted their mood and reduced their carbohydrate cravings and other symptoms when they began supplementing their diet with chromium. You should also get the recommended amount (400 micrograms) of folate, an important B vitamin that may help lift depression. In a Finnish study published in the Journal of Nutrition, participants with the lowest folate consumption were at the highest risk for depression. Another study, published in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, found this vitamin helps enhance the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
First thing in the morning, lie on your back with your head hanging over the edge of your bed
Grip a 5- or 10-pound dumbbell with both hands and extend it behind your head, letting your arms hang down toward the floor. Take 10 deep breaths, trying to expand your rib cage as much as possible. Bring the weight back and place it on the bed beside you. Scoot onto the bed so your head is supported, and take another 10 deep breaths. Repeat three times. The stretch will open your rib cage and chest, making it easier to take a deep breath. “The most common unrecognized source of mild depression is restricted trunk flexibility that interferes with full respiration,” says Bob Prichard, a biomechanist and director of Somax Sports in Tiburon, California. “Most people with mild depression are shallow breathers because their chest and stomach are too tight to allow full, easy breathing,” he says. Here’s how to tell the difference between depression vs. anxiety.
Look in the mirror and force your lips into a smile
“Research shows that the physiology of smiling actually makes you feel happy,” Dr. Cumella says. Laughter helps stimulate production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, so if you’re feeling down try watching a funny movie or stand-up routine.
Pull an all-nighter
Staying up all night for one night—and therefore depriving yourself of sleep—has been shown to lift depression for as long as a month. Although researchers aren’t sure why it works, they speculate that one night of sleep deprivation may reset the sleep clock, enabling people who are depressed to sleep better.
Bang on something
Employees at a retirement community who took a drumming class felt more energetic and less depressed six weeks after the class than before they started it. Researchers speculate that drumming helps to relax your body. Whacking a few notes out on your desk may help, but joining a weekly drumming circle may help more, particularly since it provides camaraderie with others, which, as noted earlier, also helps with depression. Watch out for these silent signs that you need depression medication.
Sleep in a different bedroom
Many people with depression also have insomnia. Switching your sleep location can help, says Dr. Cumella. You can also reduce insomnia by getting up at the same time every day, never napping for more than 20 minutes, shunning caffeine after 3 p.m., and relaxing for an hour before bed.
Go easy on yourself
When something goes wrong, resist the urge to mentally beat up on yourself. “Give yourself permission to be a human being and not a human doing,” says Karl D. La Rowe, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health investigator in Oregon. When you catch yourself mentally berating yourself for some supposed failing, replace your negative thoughts with the phrase “I am doing the best I know how to do. When I know a better way and can do it, I will.” Find out what psychologists wish you knew about depression.
Break out of your routine today
Sometimes being stuck in a rut is just that. Get out of it and your mood may come along with you. Take a day off from work and go explore a town nearby. Go out to a restaurant for dinner—even though it’s a Tuesday night. Take a different route as you drive to work, wear something that is totally “not you,” or take your camera and go on a photography hike. For a major blue mood, consider that it might be time for you to take a vacation.
Take a 10-minute walk three times a day during the winter
Many people feel depressed during the winter months, when they travel to and from work in darkness and don’t get enough natural sunlight. Physical exercise, however, encourages the release of hormones and neurochemicals that boost mood, says Richard Brown, MD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and coauthor of Stop Depression Now. Walking outside during the day will give you a few short doses of sunlight, also shown to boost mood, particularly in the winter.
Numerous studies have shown that exercise increases both the production and release of serotonin. Find an exercise program that you enjoy doing and you’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to fit in a little exercise every day. While aerobic exercise is the most effective way to boost serotonin, calming exercises like yoga are also beneficial. Or get a day of vigorous outdoor recreation, like hiking, canoeing, or biking. Let the combination of nature and physical activity work their magic on your mood. Next, read about these ways to help someone with depression.