About one out of every twelve adults suffers from depression (According to the Center for Disease Control). Everywhere we look we see a society in despair: Americans are drinking themselves to death at record numbers, with a 37% increase in alcohol related deaths since 2002. The suicide rate has increased over 25% (!) since 1999. I could go on.
After a girl in my apartment complex committed suicide recently, I decided I wanted to be a little more proactive about guiding people away from the dark plague that is depression. I am not a doctor. This is not “medical advice.” But I have struggled with depression and feel like I am remission. More to the point, everything I’m going to tell you I’ve learned from credible experts on the subject. So here’s the main things I’ve learned about feeling good.
I suspect depression is a “disease of civilization” caused by bad choices frequently made in industrialized societies. Stephen Ilardi believes this, and notes that out of 2000 hunter-gathers, only one case of depression was found, whereas the rate is much higher in the U.S. (currently 1 out of 12, far higher than 1 out of 2000!)
There are six basic components to feeling mentally and physically healthy:
- A healthy diet.
- Exercise (at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a day)
- Sunlight Exposure
- Social Connection
- A good night’s sleep
- “Anti-rumination” strategies. (meaning don’t spend time dwelling on negative thoughts, negative past experiences, etc.). When you catch yourself doing that immediately introduce a distraction (could be a computer game, crossword puzzle, just anything that works for you).
Most of this is self-explanatory, but I wanted to add some details to the first and fifth point.
What does it mean to have a healthy diet? Basically, you want to maximize your intake of natural, whole foods and minimize your intake of processed food. A can of coke has almost all the sugar you need for a day. Compared to a natural source of sugar (like fruit) that coke also doesn’t have much nutritional value or, for example, anything to combat the inflammation caused by the sugar, like vitamin C.
-Unfried Fish (especially tuna and salmon)
-Whole Grains (Black Rice and Whole Wheat Bread with Unbleached Flour are two of my favorites)
Turmeric (a highly anti-inflammatory spice from India which is noted for its beneficial brain effects by Brant Cortright in The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle) is a regular part of my diet. Chicken coated with turmeric, black pepper, and some Chipotle-style Ms. Dash and then cooked in a few tablespoons of Coconut oil is wonderful.
-Processed foods, period. There is hardly anything in a convenience store that is good for you.
-Artificial or Added Sugars
-Practically anything with added oil, especially soybean and vegetable oil, which are high in Omega 6 fats.
I previously talked about how hunter-gatherers have low rates of depression. Everything on the “maximize list” is easy to get if you’re a hunter-gatherer, everything on the “minimize” list is difficult or impossible to obtain. For example, obtaining red meat means you have to go out and kill an antelope, wild cattle, etc. But you can’t count on that everyday or even every week, just ask a deer hunter how often they succeed when they go bow hunting. On the other hand, it’s not nearly as difficult to catch a fish. Fish, incidentally, are high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which may have antidepressant effects. There are reasons for thinking excessive sugar consumption is a contributing cause to depression but it goes without saying that hunter-gatherers can’t drink sodas, eat twinkies, etc.
A handy book of good recipes is Dr Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live Quick and Easy Cookbook.
Good sleep habits include going to sleep at the same time every night and avoiding blue light emitting light bulbs or looking at computer / cell phone screens 2-3 hours before bed. As Harvard Health notes:
“At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
“But not all colors of light have the same effect. Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. And the proliferation of electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, is increasing our exposure to blue wavelengths, especially after sundown.
“Everyone has slightly different circadian rhythms, but the average length is 24 and one-quarter hours. The circadian rhythm of people who stay up late is slightly longer, while the rhythms of earlier birds fall short of 24 hours. Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School showed, in 1981, that daylight keeps a person’s internal clock aligned with the environment.
“Some studies suggest a link between exposure to light at night, such as working the night shift, to some types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. That’s not proof that nighttime light exposure causes these conditions; nor is it clear why it could be bad for us. But we do know that exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms, and there’s some experimental evidence (it’s very preliminary) that lower melatonin levels might explain the association with cancer.
“A Harvard study shed a little bit of light on the possible connection to diabetes and possibly obesity. The researchers put 10 people on a schedule that gradually shifted the timing of their circadian rhythms. Their blood sugar levels increased, throwing them into a prediabetic state, and levels of leptin, a hormone that leaves people feeling full after a meal, went down.
“Even dim light can interfere with a person’s circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion. A mere eight lux—a level of brightness exceeded by most table lamps and about twice that of a night light—has an effect, notes Stephen Lockley, a Harvard sleep researcher. Light at night is part of the reason so many people don’t get enough sleep, says Lockley, and researchers have linked short sleep to increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems.”
Although you can choose not to use cell phones or computers 2-3 hours before bed, I prefer to simply wear blue light blocking glasses at night. Some pairs are expensive ($80+), but Consumer Reports ranked Uvex Skyper ($10) glasses the most effective.
Last but not least, meditation is phenomenal. I have gone into states I would describe as a “natural high” doing it. The first couple of weeks I practiced it I didn’t notice anything, but with persistance I could see what the hype (and the research) was about. This 5 minute guided meditation is very handy, and not at all time consuming.