Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes That Help Me Manage Depression

About  a week ago, I came clean about something I’ve struggled with for years, on and off: depression.  The winter of 2013-2014 was the worst for me, and since that time I’ve put an enormous amount of effort and undertaken several strategic lifestyle changes that help me to manage my own struggles with depression.

When I wrote about my struggles in last week’s newsletters, I was anxious and nearly terrified about sharing it with you.  Vulnerability is not something I do well  But the outpouring of love, and the realization that many of you who read Nourished Kitchen also struggle with depression, or know someone who does, assured me that this is a subject we desperately need to talk about.

I’ve put together some of the most effective tools I’ve used in managing my own depression, which is a multifold approach including therapy, lifestyle changes, supplemental amino acids, light, exercise, and more, and I hope it is helpful to you, too.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

During the peak of my struggles, I began to see a therapist again, as much as twice weekly, and her specialty was cognitive behavioral therapy which has been shown to have a measurable effect on those suffering from depression and anxiety (read more here).  For me, having someone to talk to who could give me practical tools that I could use, and still use, helped immensely with sleep and anxiety.

Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes

My therapist also introduced me to the concept of Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, specific to depression.  It’s a six element approach that includes increasing omega-3s (I choose cod liver oilover fish oil), exercise, light exposure, good sleep and social support as well as what researchers call “anti-rumination” strategies, that is strategies that help you to stop the swirling whirlpool of negative thoughts that you find yourself drowning in when you’re depressed.   You can read more about these concepts in the Depression Cure, but it’s these tools coupled with good nutrition, the support of loved ones, and supplementation with amino acids that really helped me.

Supplementation with Amino Acids

At my urging, we considered antidepressants, which may be the right fit for many people, but the research on their efficacy (coupled with some pretty awful side effects) left my therapist and I resistant.  Under her guidance and that of my doctor, I began to supplement with amino acids, and 5HTP, specifically. It’s a protocol outlined by Julia Ross, a psychotherapist, who has many people address anxiety, depression and addiction through the diet and lifestyle changes as well as supplementation with key amino acids.  You can read more about her approach in her book, The Mood Cure.

Within a few days of beginning to supplement with 5HTP, I experienced dramatic improvement, though not reversal, of my symptoms and that glimmer of hope and relief offered by supplementation with amino acids gave me the will and drive to enact even more changes that would lead me further down the road to recovery.

I still take 5HTP nightly as maintenance, and while supplementation with amino acids can be enormously beneficial, as it was and continues to be for me, it’s not the full story.

Solid Nutrition

Focusing more heavily on how I nourish myself also helped to ease me out of depression, but, truthfully, for my darkest days I could barely eat anything at all.  It’s easy, with the amount of traveling we do, to fall into patterns of convenience foods and eating out.  Those patterns can be difficult to shake.  Even while cooking homemade, whole foods from scratch at home, I noticed that while my vitamin intake was typically adequate or even high, my intake of minerals almost never met the RDA which is troubling.  Right now, I’m looking for a solid mineral supplement. Instead, even when we travel extensively which has become more and more often as Nourished Kitchen has grown, I make an extra effort to eat wholesome, well-balanced meals, focusing on seafoods for their omega-3 fatty acids, and taking care to get adequate protein at each meal while avoiding refined carbohydrates where I can.  I’m far from perfect, but I do the best I can.

Instead, even when we travel extensively which has become more and more often as Nourished Kitchen has grown, I make an extra effort to eat wholesome, well-balanced meals, focusing on seafoods for their omega-3 fatty acids, and taking care to get adequate protein at each meal while avoiding refined carbohydrates where I can.  I’m far from perfect, but I do the best I can.

Whole Food Supplements

I also try to ensure I’m getting plenty of B vitamins, and I sometimes take a B-complex supplement during periods of acute stress.  The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are known to support mood stability and emotional health, and there’s some evidence that people who take cod liver oil regularly are less likely to suffer from major depression (read it here) which is, of course, not to say that cod liver oil actually treats depression.

During my hardest times, I wasn’t taking cod liver oil regularly as the kind I did take for a long time left me feeling ill.  Now, I take a fresh, natural, unrefined cod liver oil with its vitamins intact (this one), as well as dessicated liver (this is the one I use) which is a good source of B vitamins as well as minerals.

Time Outside

One of the essential elements of Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes for Depression (again outlined in greater detail in this book) is spending time outside in sunlight.  Sunlight has a profound and pronounced effect on mood, and its absence can contribute to depression which is why many people struggle with depression during winter when days are short.  Spending time in bright light can have a dramatic effect on mood, and I’m planning to purchase a light therapy lamp for when the dark days of winter set in again.

Exercise

Getting outside to exercise has also been critical to my continued recovery.  I’ve never been one for exercise, hate hitting the gym, but taking an approach that uses exercise as a healing modality has helped me immensely, and I  believe that I need to focus here considerably more.  For now, it means long walks with my husband along the beach, snowshoeing through the forest in wintertime, bike rides to the farm to pick up our CSA, as well as yoga and strength training which take effort to work into my schedule.

Social Connections

As someone who prefers solitude, and who works online like I do, it’s always difficult to pursue social connections – meeting girlfriends for lunch or cocktails, for example.  Yet, purposefully cultivating social connections whether it’s Sunday dinner with the same family every week, or a phone call with a friend on Wednesday mornings, or vacationing with friends once a year, purposefully changing my own habits to incorporate social connections has offered a measurable degree of relief for me, as part of a larger scope of addressing depression; moreover, it helped me to discover that I’m not alone, and that many, many women my age struggle with anxiety and depression.

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