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How to Take a Holistic Approach to Mental Health

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pixdeluxe via Getty Images
pixdeluxe via Getty Images

It is shocking really. In the past 10 years the use of antidepressant drugs has skyrocketed. Some researchers say that one in 10 American people are on an antidepressant. There's a lot of finger pointing to identify why this is happening, from our busy modern lives to television ads that promote the use of antidepressants (over talk therapy for example) and growing money concerns. A tendency toward overdiagnosis (and immediate medication to silence symptoms) may also be at play.

I prefer a holistic approach to the treatment of depression, that may include prescription drugs in some cases. And feel that many people aren't aware of the lifestyle adjustments and holistic remedies they can use to help them either avoid depression medication (which can have unfortunate side effects including weight gain) or shorten the time they rely on these drugs. Let's look at a few ways you can support a more positive mood.

But First, What Is Depression Anyway?

Depression, like other mood disorders including anxiety, has complicated origins. There are many factors that can contribute to depression and the truth is, we don't know definitively what causes depression. It is more likely a tangle of things. There are biological origins: individuals with depression appear to have differences in their brain structure, and often have a family history of depression (suggesting a genetic influence). Scientists have noted changes in the function of neurotransmitters in the brain, as well as hormone disruption in depressed individuals. There are also situational origins, like stress or trauma in an individual's life which can trigger depressive episodes.

Even when depression as a disorder is not a fitting diagnosis, we all go through ups and downs in our lives. My recommendations for a holistic approach to happy can help when you are just faced with "a bad week."

Come on Get Happy: A Holistic Prescription to Mental Health

Exercise

Scientific research into depression has found a link between serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that performs many functions, and depression. Some researchers believe that serotonin is responsible for maintaining a good mood and that when it is low, people experience symptoms of depression. How can you boost your serotonin levels quickly and effectively? By getting your body moving. Several studies have revealed that exercise releases more serotonin in the brain. A runner's high? This might actually be a real thing. The overall mechanism of exercise's effect on the brain are still being uncovered, but what has been revealed so far supports what I say anyway, exercise is part of a healthy life.

For an even greater happiness boost, find exercise that you love. Giving ourselves the opportunity to engage in activities that turn us on enriches our lives positively.

Group exercise programs also contribute the benefits of belonging and community, which help people to feel less isolated, a potential trigger for depression symptoms.

Get Out in the Light

Our modern lives mean that many of us spend the majority of our days indoors working in artificial light. This limits our exposure to sunlight; where bright light has been shown in a lot of promising research to increase serotonin levels. Individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorder experience symptoms of depression as light levels drop in seasonal climates; they can see positive results with the use of specific indoor lamps meant to mimic the sun.

We evolved outdoors, hunting and gathering in direct light even in the winter. But our modern lives have gotten in the way of a basic biological need to access the sun's rays. While many of us may not be able to approximate this lifestyle in our modern day, we can boost our overall exposure to the sun by becoming more conscious of our need for it. Take a mid-morning break from work and step outside for a walk. Even in overcast conditions, you will access the mood-boosting benefits of the sun. Head outdoors as much as you can after work. And exercise outside for a double boost!

Meditation

Meditation programs are enjoying a moment in the spotlight and for good reason; no longer the food of the most devoted spiritual gurus amongst us, meditation is finding its way into our modern lives and I couldn't be happier to see this.

There is a lot of research to support the positive effects of meditation for boosting mood, as well as improving stress levels and an overall sense of mastery and control in our lives. Researchers are now trying to uncover links between improved mood states and meditation with results suggesting a meditation program might improve signalling connections in the brain and help us to better process emotions. There is promising initial research out there to suggest that meditation might rival antidepressant medication for effectiveness in some people and situations.

A Diet Rich in Tryptophan

Food is a powerful medicine and it is appropriate to look at how certain nutrients can impact our experience of depression symptoms. Studies that look at ways to increase serotonin levels have identified the importance of elevated levels of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino-acid found in both plant and animal sources (people are often aware that turkey is a great source of tryptophan). Tryptophan increases the body's production of serotonin encouraging researchers to look at it's role in relieving depression. This encouraging study found that developed nations that had the highest levels of dietary tryptophan consumption also had lower levels of suicide.

Foods that will give you a healthy dose of tryptophan include egg whites, cod, spirulina and soybeans.

Depression can be a serious and complicated condition. For many, prescription medications are necessary. But even for those people, these suggestions for a holistic approach can improve their treatment plan. And for others, there is a lot of promising research here suggesting that lifestyle modifications can decrease our susceptibility to depression and contribute to a better mood.

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