When you think of depression, you most likely think of it as a disease of the brain, a neurochemical imbalance. Research, however, does not support this idea.
Dr. Kelly Brogan, MD author of A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives, explores the science and research behind the epidemic of depression among especially women in our society. Antidepressants are basically designed to increase serotonin levels in the brain. However, according to Brogan, “there has never been a human study that successfully links lower serotonin levels and depression.” She goes on to note that the brain process has been oversimplified, and that by artificially managing our neurochemistry, we inadvertently shut down our bodies’ ability to self-regulate and heal. Because of the nature of their action, antidepressants are also extremely difficult to taper off of, so for those thinking they can take medication for a short time, end up being caught in a cycle of dependence. Chances are you know someone who has felt this way; one in four women in their forties and fifties use psychiatric drugs.
While some may find some relief from their symptoms in the short term, Brogan explores research that shows this is primarily due to the placebo effect. Women are looking for a way out of their depression, and fast. This of course makes sense, but Brogan goes on to explore the long term side effects of being on antidepressants, and her case becomes more compelling. Looking at the long term, lifestyle modification actually beats medication in terms of levels of depression and overall self reported feelings of mental health. There are also serious potential side effects of antidepressants, including “crippling withdrawal.” Brogan also cites that “five of the top ten most violence-inducing drugs have been found to be antidepressants.”
Brogan is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine and integrative holistic medicine, so it’s not surprising that she has looked for ways other than prescription medication to help her patients that come to her with symptoms of depression. She contends that the root cause of depression is chronic inflammation. She believes that to get the heart of depression, we must go look at the microbiome, and since most of our microbiome exists near our intestinal tract, we need to go to our gut to find the solution. She admits that the relationship between the brain, gut, immune and hormonal systems is complex, and cannot be looked at in a simplistic way. She emphasizes, “we must work everyday to send our bodies the message that we are not being attacked, we are not in danger, and we are well-nourished, well-supported, and calm.” Protecting the microbiome, she insists, is the way to protect our mental health.
The first, and arguably the most important, step, is to consider food not just as fuel, but as information. Her suggestions are not revolutionary, but follow sound, nutritional advice that has become the mainstay of healthy eating experts: eat whole foods, avoid sugars and processed foods, include healthy fats and probiotics, and finally, eat mindfully. Brogan suggests doing your best to get your anti-inflammatory vitamins, minerals antioxidants and amino acids from food, turning to supplements only as needed.
The other lifestyle factors that she insists her patients adopt are also ones you might expect; meditation, sleep, and exercise. She does not give any one mode of mediation as a rule, but suggests trying different styles until you find one that suits you. The primary goal here is to activate your nervous system’s relaxation response. This is a mode where your body can return to a state of homeostasis, and activate its’ own healing mechanism. The quality of our sleep controls our hormones, our immune system, and our inflammatory response. In fact, she reports that “insomnia predicts depression risk by up to fourteen-fold after a year.” The importance of creating quality sleep habits are a crucial part of supporting a healthy mental state.
Exercise is another important way to support our mental health. One of the effects of it is that it lowers levels of chronic inflammation in the body. Interesting research shows that “exercise can be a biological insurance plan against the bodily effects of stress” and that it actually “lowers your risk of getting depression. Period.” Brogan cites the positive effects of high intensity interval training, and notes that while it affects the physiology of the body, it also has the capacity to affect our bodies at a genetic and molecular level.
Finally, she encourages her patients to detoxify their life, from cleaning products, to cosmetics, to the water you drink. Minimizing your exposure to various environmental toxins will help your body spend more energy on creating optimal health, and less energy on trying to rid your body of those toxins.
Brogan goes into detail on how adding these lifestyle habits, along with detoxifying your life can lead to a more balanced and vital mental state. She cites patient cases where making these changes created significant, and most importantly, lasting benefits. She admits that her way is not a quick fix, and that taking the time and energy to address these lifestyle changes takes work. However, the alternative is grim, and what looks like a quick fix, medication, is actually an entry point into a dark cycle. Brogan insists, “The best way to heal our brains is to heal the bodies in which they reside.”