From time to time, most of us experience gloomy moods (not to be mistaken with depression) that disappear with an invigorating walk, a stimulating conversation with friends, or a soothing massage.
But if you’re feeling blue for more than a few weeks and have difficulty functioning in daily life, you may be suffering from clinical depression, an intense, pervasive mood disorder that attacks the mind and body simultaneously. Triggered by various biological, psychological, and social factors, this medical condition affects nineteen million Americans every year, more than half of which are women.
There are several different types of depression, each with its own range of symptoms, severity, and persistence. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as the ‘holiday blues’ usually happens in the late fall or winter as a result of light deprivation.
A lack of sunlight increases melatonin production, causing a biochemical imbalance that often results in extreme fatigue, anxiety, social withdrawal, sadness, appetite changes, and little-to-no sex drive. Major depression, a chronic condition that occurs when levels of serotonin (the brain’s mood-regulating neurotransmitter) are low, is one of the most severe types of depression. It may significantly impair a person’s thoughts, behavior, daily activities, and overall physical health in some cases leading to suicide. Other forms of depression include dysthymia (a chronic, milder form of depression), bipolar disorder (manic depression), and postpartum depression (caused by changing levels of reproductive hormones).
Fortunately, all mood disorders are highly treatable. But while doctors are quick to prescribe patients with antidepressants like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, recent studies show that close to half of the people who seek treatment are not helped by pharmaceuticals or withdraw from treatment too early. Of those who do recover, more than one third relapse within eighteen months. Add to that the fear of potential side effects from the medication, such as weight gain, sluggishness, and sexual dysfunction, and it’s clear why so many depression sufferers are looking for alternative therapies to beat the blues. Recent research has shown that light therapy, acupuncture, yoga, and nutrition may bring emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being to your life.
Just as serotonin levels can be elevated by Prozac, a medication prescribed both for SAD and chronic depression, bright light also influences biochemistry. Whether the light source is artificial or natural (from sunlight), light therapy works by sending visible light through the eyes so that it reaches the pineal gland, which is responsible for regulating melatonin production and our biological clock, the circadian rhythms.
“The body is programmed to start the day with sunrise,” says Dr. Edward J. Krall, a clinical psychiatrist at the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin. “But as days get shorter, the sunrise comes later and throws off the body’s internal hormones, like melatonin.” As little as thirty minutes of light therapy a day for a few weeks can alleviate some of the worst symptoms, while those afflicted with severe SAD may want to seek daily light therapy treatments from September until April. Says Dr. Krall, “Many people feel an improvement in mood similar to the exuberance experienced in spring.”
Supporting what practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have long maintained, a study at the University of Arizona found acupuncture to be helpful for women with mild to moderate depression. Acupuncture boosts endorphin production and regulates levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, neurotransmitters that stabilize our emotions and response to stress, as well as the physical drives of sleep, appetite, and sexuality. This ancient healing philosophy could be particularly useful for women with prenatal or postpartum depression who are reluctant to take anti-depressants during pregnancy or while breast-feeding.
A well-known Indian antidote to depression, yoga is emerging in the West as a potential alternative to pharmaceuticals. Studies by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in India have shown that particular breathing exercises during yoga can lower cortisol (which is linked to stress and major depression) and boost prolactin, a hormone that experts claim is the key in producing the anti-depressant effect of electroshock therapy. In addition, an inverted posture (when the head is beneath the heart), like downward dog or a headstand, increases the supply of oxygen and glucose, a process that seems to raise serotonin production.
“One single class can help balance biochemistry,” says Kripalu yoga instructor Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga (Broadway Books, 2004). “And as the practice induces a more meditative frame of mind, it’s easy for people to get in touch with who they are and what’s going on inside. Keep in mind,” Weintraub says, “that just like you would take an SSRI [Selective Serotonin-Reuptake Inhibitor] every day, you need to do yoga regularly [preferably every day]to make the biochemical effects last.”
According to Dr. Carol E. Watkins, a clinical psychiatrist in Lutherville, Maryland, a consistent fitness regimen will not only reduce stress and boost physical well-being, energy, and self-esteem, but will also improve one’s sleep, eating habits, and social interaction factors that play an important role in mood disorders. “Physical activity is known to raise serotonin levels, but to get to that you have to exercise at least four days a week.” She adds, “For people with SAD, it’s better to exercise outside, rain or shine; but even being at the gym or at home with a tape helps a lot.”
One of the keys to relief from SAD and chronic depression is sticking to a sound dietary plan. This includes eating three to five balanced meals a day and avoiding comfort foods, alcohol, and excessive snacking. “People who are depressed tend to crave carbohydrates and overeat, all while feeling fatigued and lethargic,” a pattern that often leads to weight gain and self-loathing, explains Dr. Krall. Overall, he says, it’s important to develop a healthy balance in life, which involves taking care of oneself mentally, physically, and spiritually. “You need to eat right, exercise, take time for yourself, spend time with your loved ones, and do things you enjoy.”
- A Positive Note
Use journaling as a way to record the good things in your life, suggests Dr. Edward J. Krall, a Marshfield Clinic psychiatrist. For example, every day, write down one thing that you love about yourself and/or your life, be it your job, your body, your kids, your husband, or a hobby. “It helps people put things into perspective,” Dr. Krall says. “It may be that the only thing you like about your job is the paycheck, but start there and see what happens.”
- Find a Purpose
Studies indicate that volunteering radically reduces symptoms in depressed individuals. In addition to becoming more involved in the community, helping others promotes spiritual well-being and builds self-confidence.
- Laugh Out Loud (LOL)
A good belly laugh produces an abundance of endorphins, the body’s ‘happy’ hormones, lessens stress and anxiety, instills a positive outlook on life, and may even increase serotonin levels, claim researchers at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.
By Isabelle Gull