I healed my depression naturally. You can too.
You are not broken.
Depression is curable.
There’s no miracle pill, no quick fix. But it is possible.
Depression does not need to be a lifelong diagnosis.
In this post I’ll share the lifestyle changes that cured my chronic depression and the book I wish I’d had at the start of my journey.
Affiliate links ahead. If you use them to purchase anything through Amazon, I earn a small commission. Thank you!
Depression is Not a Disease
Mental health will always be grounded in whole body health.
– Kelly Brogan, M.D.
Like many people who struggle with depression, I thought there was something wrong with me. I was told that it would always be there, that the best I could hope for was to control it, medicate it into submission.
There were times I felt I had it under control… and times when I spend days hiding under the covers, wishing I was dead. I finally saw a psychiatrist (after a mild mental breakdown… alone in central Mexico), who diagnosed me as bipolar and wrote a prescription. But I refused to fill it.
I knew I had to find another way.
I know now that depression is not a disease, but a symptom.
Depression is essentially an adaptive response — our bodies’ way of telling us to hide and rest when our systems are overwhelmed. “Put simply,” writes holistic psychiatrist Dr. Kelly Brogan, “depression is a sign for us to stop and figure out what’s causing our imbalance.”
What was an adaptive response for our ancestors has become a chronic condition.
Our bodies are under constant assault. The average American eats a diet of pseudo food laced with toxic chemicals. We’re chronically stressed, sedentary, and sleep deprived.
By making simple lifestyle changes, we can mitigate the toxic effects of modern life. When we calm the chronic inflammation that causes depression, our symptoms disappear. And when we feel comfortable in our own bodies, we can address the larger issues in our lives that contribute to our depression.
So what can we do?
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
The single most important thing that lifted me out of my manic-depressive cycle?
I stopped eating wheat.
Now, my triggers are not your triggers. There is no one perfect diet.
An elimination diet will help you determine which foods affect you.
Eliminate What Ails You
Some “foods” are just plain toxic — think twinkies and wonderbread. Other foods, like dairy and grains, are healthy for some people and problematic for others.
Cut out certain food groups for a month or so and see how you feel. Then slowly reintroduce them one at a time to see which you tolerate and which trigger an inflammation response.
The Whole30 is a popular diet with hundreds of recipes online.
Dr. Kelly Brogan’s A Mind of Your Own (that’s the book I wish I’d had ten years ago, by the way) includes a similar diet, plus a simple meal plan and recipes.
The Primal Blueprint is another excellent approach.
Basically any version of a whole-foods diet is a good place to start.
Nourish Your Body
This diet from the Weston A Price Foundation is ideal. Of course, it can be difficult to eat that way every week — particularly as a parent. I make nutrient-packed smoothies and take supplements to help fill the gaps.
There are thousands of supplements out there, and our needs are all different. But as a general rule, whole foods are best. No one food is likely to cure your depression, but the synergistic effects of a healthy diet will change your life.
Vitamin B12, folate, and mineral deficiencies have all been linked to depression.
Liver provides all these and more
Ancestral Supplements Grassfed Beef Liver Pills changed my life. I was SO depleted after my son was born. Taking these whole-food vitamins daily gave me my energy back.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, helps to reduce symptoms of depression. Eat it with black pepper and healthy fats to increase its bioavailability.
I add turmeric to just about everything I eat or drink. Roast veggies, pulled pork, paleo muffins, smoothies. I also add fresh grated turmeric to my homemade sauerkraut.
If you don’t enjoy turmeric, curcumin is also available as a supplement.
Ascorbic acid is a powerful antioxidant that protects against depression.
I get as much as possible from whole foods — red pepper, OJ, kiwifruit — and take a Vitamin C supplement as well.
Watch this brilliant lecture by Dr. Suzanne Humphries to learn about Vitamin C and why we need much more than the ‘recommended daily value’ indicates.
We host hundreds of trillions of bacteria. Scientists are only beginning to understand the role they play in human health, but we know that probiotics can alleviate depression.
The human microbiome plays a vital role in detox, nutrient absorption, and immune system function.
I favor a variety of probiotic foods over supplements. My favorites are sauerkraut, yogurt, and kombucha. If you’d prefer a probiotic supplement, Dr. Brogan recommends Prescript-Assist.
Avoid margarine, processed foods, and other sources of trans fats.
Choose healthy fats such as grassfed butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.
Omega-3 is yet another important part of an anti-inflammatory diet and necessary for healthy brain function. Both forms (EPA and DHA) have antidepressant effects. Food sources include salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Fatty acids are particularly important for pregnant and nursing mothers, as they play a critical role in brain development. I supplement with Nordic Naturals Cod Liver Oil. My toddler loves to drink his daily dose from a shot glass.
Get Out and Move
Before I fixed my diet, long runs helped keep my depressive episodes under control.
Basically any form of exercise will do. And it shouldn’t feel like a chore.
Find something you enjoy! Ecstatic dance, rock climbing, capoeira…
Yoga is an excellent option, both for exercise and meditation.
Play with your kids. Jump on the trampoline. Explore a new trail.
Vitamin D also protects against depression. Sunshine is the best way to get it! But if you live far from the equator and suffer from seasonal depression, vitamin D supplements also have a therapeutic effect.
It’s all too easy to fall into a vicious cycle of depression and isolation. When you’re down, getting out and socializing is daunting. But isolation only makes things worse.
We need friends — ideally other mothers — to talk to. Humans are social animals. We were never meant to be stuck inside all day with a preverbal infant; it’s no wonder that so many mothers find the transition to motherhood to be hugely stressful.
If you need help, get it. Find a counselor or join a support group.
And don’t underestimate the importance of the way you speak to yourself. Too often, we treat ourselves with a level of anger and disdain that we would never inflict upon anyone else.
So speak to yourself the way you would speak to a dear friend. Rewrite your inner voice.
Find Your Zen
Take a deep breath.
Meditation is a powerful tool. Dr. Kelly Brogan advocates for a daily meditation practice, which “stimulates the expression of genes that are powerfully anti-inflammatory”.
Is the prospect of sitting and clearing your mind overwhelming?
Yeah, for me too. I’m amazed at my continued resistance to just sitting in peace. Our society conditions us to business, and the addiction to distraction can be powerful.
But there are plenty of alternatives to sitting meditation. Simply pausing a few times a day to breathe deeply is a good start.
Prayer, particularly repetitive prayer, is one of the oldest forms of meditation.
Kundalini yoga, qi gong, and tai chi are all good options for getting moving and finding your zen. Join a class or find a video online.
As a busy parent, the prospect of taking on one more thing can be daunting. Luckily, babies and small children are much more present and mindful than we are. Tune in to their natural flow.
Take a long walk in nature with your baby.
Read Good Morning Yoga with your kids.
Throw pebbles with your toddler.
Practice Radical Gratitude
I know, it’s the last thing anyone struggling with depression wants to hear.
“Look on the bright side.”
But as the burden of physical depression dissipates, you have the opportunity to rewire your brain.
One powerful and accessible ritual is a daily gratitude practice.
Each night when I go to bed (or in the midst of a challenging day), I list the things I’m grateful for.
This is especially powerful when I focus on specifics, like a special moment with my son. With each breath, I conjure up and image or a memory hat brings me joy. This simple practice calms the frenetic worry in my brain and helps me to sleep.
Say No to Drugs
Birth control pills cause inflammation while depleting vital nutrients and antioxidants.
Antibiotics devastate the microbiome.
Statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) cause decreased cognitive function and depression.
NSAIDS like ibuprofen damage the intestine and trigger chronic inflammation.
Tylenol (acetaminophen) depletes antioxidants (particularly glutathione) and causes oxidative damage.
Don’t fall victim to a cascade of prescriptions. If at all possible, avoid pharmaceuticals altogether.
The Dangers of Antidepressants
Ask your doctor if Abiloft is right for you!
Most countries don’t allow commercials for prescription drugs. The United States and New Zealand are the only two exceptions.
We’re bombarded with ads for psych meds.
Pharmaceutical companies finance FDA trials, fund medical education, and spend billions of dollars on direct-to-consumer ads.
They want us to believe that depression is a genetic disease. Manageable, but incurable. A chemical imbalance.
All those cartoons with the colorful bubbles bouncing around your brain?
Nothing but good advertising.
Antidepressants have repeatedly been shown in long-term scientific studies to worsen the course of mental illness — to say nothing of the risks of liver damage, abnormal bleeding, weight gain, sexual dysfunction, and reduced cognitive function they entail.
– Kelly Brogan, M.D.
The efficacy of antidepressants is largely attributable to the placebo effect. When trials control for this by using an active placebo (which causes some “side effects” to make the placebo group think they got the real thing), the antidepressants fail to outperform the placebo. Likewise, patients who receive an antidepressant but are told its a placebo (the nocebo effect) fail to improve.
With an efficacy that’s minimal to nill, the side effects of antidepressants just aren’t worth it. Side effects range from suppressed libido and migraines to violent behavior and an increased risk of suicide.
It is not safe to suddenly stop taking psychiatric medications. They should be tapered slowly and carefully, ideally with the help of a holistic doctor. But it can (and should) be done.
If you struggle with depression, read A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Kelly Brogan, M.D. It goes deeper into everything I’ve mentioned here (and lots of things I didn’t). Her 30-day plan for transformation includes healthy recipes, supplement recommendations, and detox advice.
Thank you for reading. Have you had success with any of these approaches? Or others I didn’t cover? Please share your experiences below.