Say the words “depression treatment” today and if the response you get isn’t a smirk, it is likely to contain words like anti-depressant medication, cognitive counseling, alternative herb therapy, shock treatment and a smirk at the end. When it comes to the American health care industry, mental health care pretty much begins and ends with making big profits for pharmaceutical companies making money off pills. If the pills don’t work, you’d better hope to god your insurance company covers the alternatives.
Of course, the discourse also includes changing your lifestyle. You don’t hear a lot about this from insured health care providers because most of these changes not only do not put money into the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies, they also take money out of the coffers of other types of industry. As someone who has been dealing with depression and the utter disregard for anything besides pills and expensive shrinks that the health care industry in America is built upon, I have looked to every possible alternative, including lifestyle changes.
Alcohol has the effect of depressing activity in the brain and one of the first pieces of advice on changing your lifestyle you will hear is to give up or at least cut back on alcohol consumption. This was not an issue for me as I don’t drink liquor in the first place. In addition to being a chemical depressant, excessive consumption of alcohol can produce a drop in your blood sugar levels known as hypoglycemia. The dirty little trick of the body here is that a drop in blood sugar levels can make the mental difficulties you experience as a result of depression even worse.
Boy, what I wouldn’t give for the chance to lighten my battle with depression by giving up tobacco. Since I also have never smoked, this lifestyle change to beat depression is also a non-issue. Here’s why you may feel a little less depressed if you toss out your butts. Nicotine increases stimulation of a hormone called cortisol which activates a process that has the effect of obstructing delivery of tryptophan to your brain. A reduction in tryptophan means a coincident reduction in the levels of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Not only does smoking keep you from attaining the proper level of serotonin, but it also makes the serotonin that does get produced less efficient.
Cut Down on Caffeine
The stimulant effects of caffeine and sugar seem like a natural for dealing with depression, but alas, no. Here we come to my own lifestyle problem. I’m a fiend for Mountain Dew Throwback made with real sugar. Many studies have been done on the effect of caffeine on depression and the links between the two seem to be fairly strong, but so far no single consensus exists to explain a biological connection as with nicotine and alcohol. One likely link is the way that caffeine contributes to hypoglycemia and thus produces the same negative effect as alcohol. Another proposal is that caffeine disrupts your sleep cycle and the resulting fatigue has an effect on mood and motivation. I’ve been drinking highly caffeinated sodas for so long that I often don’t even experience trouble sleeping when consuming them in the evening. I did briefly cut back on caffeine and sugar during a temporary respite when I found medication that worked briefly, but I’m not sure if there was any real correlation.
Exercise is the ironic monster of depression. Your depression will lift at least temporarily if you exercise regularly—I can attest to this—but when you’re depressed you do not have the motivation to get up and exercise. During that five year break in my depression when medication was working, I became an exercise demon. I mean I got totally addicted to it. I exercise nearly every single day and when I didn’t I could actually experience a physical urge to find a way to get it in. As my medication began to lose its efficacy, my desire to work out waned and, eventually, went away completely. I can say this all the confidence in the world: I never felt better or was in better shape in my life than during that five year miracle. I would not just about anything to get that motivation to exercise back.