Recovery from Depression
Depression is deeply complex and for those suffering, a deeply personal and seemingly insurmountable thing to deal with. It is fraught with both self induced guilt and also an air of 'there must be something wrong with me'. It is debilitating and soul destroying.
Each person that experiences depression will experience it in their own individual way. For some it is the 'black cloud' that just won't shift, leaving one feeling soulless, amotivated, blank, empty and down. For others it is a deep despair and or a deep loathing. Feeling that there is 'nothing' - no emotions whatsoever - can be more devastating than feeling deeply sad. Suicidal thoughts can be common - as the desire to escape the insufferable feelings appear to be a welcome release.
The factors that contribute to depression can be many-fold and can not be seen as separate entities. Each area of your life will affect the other. Your physical health will affect your mental health. Your mental health will affect your spiritual health. Your spiritual health will affect your relationships - and so on.
Likewise, treatment should also be a holistic approach. Antidepressants can be life saving - but other options such as talk therapy, improving physical health, lifestyle changes and nutritional support can be helpful and can aid help recovery.
The mind is a tricky beast. On a psychological level the brain is programmed to see dangers and potential pitfalls which may cause you harm physically or emotionally. It's constantly looking out for you - but in doing so can keep your mind in a state of negative cognition. In times of illness (inflammation), your natural instinct is to stay quiet, stay at home, interact with a few people as possible. This is a natural and normal response to being unwell. Interestingly researchers have found that those suffering from depression generally have higher amounts of cytokines (markers of inflammation) in their system - suggesting that depression may actually be a response to a long term physical or emotional stressor which has turned on an inflammatory response.
Another component is the issue of ACE's (adverse childhood events). Adverse childhood events are linked to higher rates of depression later in life - leading to the understanding that stressful emotional events in childhood increase inflammation markers and can lead to physical and therefore emotional changes possibly resulting in depression, anxiety or sometimes other chronic diseases such as an autoimmune disorder.
A poor diet - can also cause general body inflammation - inflamed body = inflamed brain - which can also lead to depression. People on a ultra-processed diet have poorer mental health than those who eat the recommended 5+ a day.
As you can see, your emotional experiences can and do affect you physically, and visa-versa.
how to heal
If you are depressed, there are a few places to look for solutions. One is to get a full assessment from your GP. It is most important to rule out other factors which may be contributing to a low mood. Anemia for example can affect mood and sleep and present like a mild depression. Hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) can present as feeling low in energy, wanting to sleep all the time as well as increased weight gain despite a reduced appetite. Low vitamin D levels have been associated with depression. Low B12 can affect energy levels. Borderline test results can still signify problems in the intake, absorption or use of minerals and vitamins in the body. Ask a full check up from the GP to rule out an obvious physical cause for your mood.
Most importantly - talking helps. Seek out a psychologist, counselor or an elder that you trust. Talking therapies (specifically ones such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)) have been proven to assist recovery of depression. However, the most important component of therapy is the rapport you have with the therapist / person giving you the therapy.
Interestingly in New Zealand, soils are deficient in selenium, boron and iodine. These nutrients can have an impact on your mental health - as two of these are imperative to a well functioning thyroid. A low selenium status is associated with an increased risk of mortality, poor immune function and cognitive decline, according to a review in the Lancet. The last National Nutrition survey found about 11% of New Zealand women had low iron stores, iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia. Low iron can cause poor sleep, extreme fatigue and poor cellular function. Folate deficiency is common in those suffering from depression. Magnesium and Zinc deficiencies and lack of the B complex vitamins can contribute to a low mood.
A wide and varied diet is the best way to prevent a deficiency, however if you are diagnosed as being low in iron, B12 or other nutrients - you may need supplementation initially. If your appetite is low and or you have difficulty consuming foods high in nutrients - a supplement may also be necessary for a period of time.
Having good gut bacteria can help reduce body inflammation and improve general health. Studies have shown that specific probiotics have helped prevent post-natal depression. The best thing for promoting good gut bacteria is fermented foods and fibre from vegetables.
In general, eat as many vegetables as you can possibly get your hands on, and good lean protein. In one study they found that a change in diet had the effect of putting some people into remission from a depressive illness. You can find other information on what to eat for health and well-being here.
It might be the last thing you feel like doing - but exercise has been shown to be as effective as an antidepressant. Phone a friend, ask for support, tell them you want to get an exercise regime 3-4 times per week. Personally I recommend walking, preferably outside, in nature. It's cheap, easy, requires no extra equipment and you can gently build yourself up. However do whatever you think you will enjoy. Even a five minute walk, swim, dance, skip or hop is going to be helpful. Just move your body.
Many studies show that being in 'green' spaces has a positive effect on well-being. Try to get outside daily, minimal 20 minutes and if all possible expose yourself to direct sunlight. This stimulates melatonin production to help you sleep at night and stimulates vitamin D production which has been shown to have a positive effect on mood.
Mind-body practices like Tai Chi, Chi Quong and other martial arts can be helpful as they also involve correct breathing techniques, which can help reduce stress and inflammation all on their own.
Sleep is incredibly important for recovery and healing - and this includes recovery from a mental illness such as depression. It's the time the mind and brain are 'swept clean'. You don't want to oversleep (no more than 10 hours) nor under-sleep - ideally you should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If lack of sleep is your problem - you can try a supplement to assist with this (herbal or magnesium supplement can help) and start a good bedtime routine. Bed by 10pm, up around eight. Bring in relaxation exercises to help. I've written more about sleep here.
There are also things in our every day lives that contribute to stress - be it mental or physical and these things are to be avoided. Caffeine and alcohol are two big substances to avoid. Caffeine can cause us to feel agitated and affect sleep, alcohol although may feel calming to us initially - can also cause poor sleep patterns. It is also, in it's own right a depressant.
Ideally avoid poor nutrient foods such as processed refined carbs which can cause unsteady blood sugar levels - surges and dips which can also affect mood states.
Avoid staying inside, in bed or totally isolating yourself from everyone. If you need to hide away on occasional days to help regroup - then a day here and there is fine. Otherwise it's important to interact, distract and involve yourself in other activities as much as you can.
Treating depression is a many pronged approach. There is not one cure all - for best results lifestyle changes may need to be made to support your body, soul and mind in the healing process. The more areas of health you can work on, the more tools in the wellness toolbox, the greater the chances of recovery.