Around 1 in 4 of us will experience depression at some point in our lives. It’s a terrifying statistic, especially as major depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the burden of suicide and ischemic heart disease.1 Available evidence now suggests that we may be in the midst of an epidemic of depression; and it is the most modernised countries that have the highest rates. Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived and socially isolated. In addition, there is an alarming trend of a deterioration of mental health supports. What’s interesting is that we are also sailing right into the eye of an obesity storm and many of the same lifestyle factors that fuel the development of obesity, e.g. diet and exercise, also contribute towards depression.

Depression is a complex, terrifying and debilitating illness that can range from mild to severe, and at its worst is often described as a dark tunnel with seemingly no way out. There exists a range of treatment options, both from a conventional medical perspective and within alternative healthcare too, however rates have reached epidemic proportions and there is now an urgent need for something to change.

So what’s the answer? There’s no quick fix; a holistic approach that unifies all of the dietary, lifestyle, therapeutic and conventional medical approaches is what’s urgently needed. 

Here we’ve put together an overview of the key dietary and lifestyle changes that can have a significant positive impact both on those currently suffering with the condition and on longer-term risks of developing the illness too:

10 Natural approaches to depression that really work

1) Mindfulness – There is so much research now on the benefits of mindfulness for depression. The benefits of mindfulness in preventing serious depression and emotional distress have now been proven by more than 10 clinical trials. In fact, mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has now become a treatment of choice for prevention of recurrent depression in the UK National Health Service. Most GPs are aware of the latest research into mindfulness and more recent work by the renowned Oxford Mindfulness Centre has led to major breakthroughs in understanding how mindfulness may help to reduce suicidality in depression, emotional turbulence in bipolar disorder and serious health anxiety. It’s a simple yet profoundly powerful tool when it becomes part of your daily life. Have a look at our resource section below if you’re interested in finding out more.  

2) Exercise – One of the best-known natural anti-depressants available. Exercise may help to kick-start more positive feelings and when integrated regularly into your lifestyle may help to prevent depression too. You’ll get more out of regular exercise if you find something that you really enjoy and connect with a friend or a local group whilst doing it. A combination of more relaxing exercise such as yoga or pilates and more energetic types such as brisk walking, running or swimming is a great strategy.

3) Sleep – Change in sleep patterns is a common symptom of depression and this can become a vicious cycle as lack of sleep can exacerbate a low mood and so the cycle continues. Taking steps to get beneficial sleep habits back on track is an important step towards improving mood. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be very calming before bedtime, as can a hot bath infused with lavender essential oil. Key nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid are important for restful sleep. In addition, the amino acids L-tryptophan and L-theanine, and hops extract, milk protein hydrolysate and lemon balm can also be beneficial.

4) Omega-3s – Among the most extensively studied nutrients for depression; EPA & DHA are important omega-3 fats found in rich supply in oily fish and often missing from Western diets. Research has shown that it is EPA in particular that may help to prevent or even treat depression when combined with anti-depressant medication. For therapeutic levels, opt for an omega-3 supplement with a high ratio of EPA: DHA containing at least 1000mg EPA daily. It is important that the oil you take has been thoroughly purified to be free from any environmental contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. A fish oil supplement that can’t demonstrate this high level of purity may do you more harm than good. 

5) Magnesium – Closely behind omega-3s in terms of supportive nutrients for depression comes magnesium. This important mineral is often referred to as a ‘chill pill’ or ‘nature’s tranquiliser’. The first information on its beneficial effects for depression was published almost 100 years ago and now numerous studies have confirmed these initial observations as well as demonstrated the beneficial safety profile of magnesium supplementation. Magnesium is best supplied in supplement form as bisglycinate. Take 200mg daily during times of increased strain to support optimal levels.   

6) Vitamin B12 & Folate – Both low folate and low vitamin B12 have been found in studies of depressive patients. Low folate levels are linked to a poor response to antidepressants, and treatment with folic acid has been shown to improve response to antidepressants. When choosing a dietary supplement, look for vitamin B12 as methylcobalamin and folic acid as 5-MTHF (5-Methyltetrahydrofolate) as these are the active forms that can be used by the body straight away. Some people lack the enzymes to convert other forms of these nutrients into these active forms and so may not be getting any benefit from their supplements. A high-quality multivitamin & mineral containing high levels of these active forms is the best way to ensure optimal intake of these key nutrients.

7) 5-HTP (5-Hydroxytryptophan) – This nutrient is a natural precursor to the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, levels of which are often low in depression. It is formed naturally in the body but you can supplement directly with 5-HTP to ensure a higher availability of this nutrient needed for the body to make serotonin.

8) Vitamins C & D – Both of these nutrients have been found to be a useful natural support for depression. Vitamin C is found in rich supply in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and vitamin D is produced in the skin in response to sunlight. Supplement with at least 1,000 IU daily of vitamin D as cholecalciferol (D3). A high-quality multivitamin & mineral will help to ensure optimal daily intake of these nutrients.

9) Avoid alcohol – Alcohol is a known depressant and best avoided to support improved mood. 

10) Cut out sugar & stimulants – Sugar and stimulants can give an initial high followed by a corresponding dip in mood and energy levels. Avoiding caffeine and sugary foods and drinks, whilst eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, wholegrains and high-quality protein is an important dietary strategy to support improved mood.

Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world - Mark Williams
Sane New World: Taming the Mind - Ruby Wax

1. Whiteford, H. A. et al. (2013) Global burden of disease attributable to mental and substance use disorders: findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet. 382 (9904). pp. 1575-1586.

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