More accurately, if you’re dealing with depression, you need to make sure you’re getting enough sleep—and most of us aren’t. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 Americans aren’t getting the 7 hours most of us need to function properly. This can work both ways—sleep problems are a common symptom of depression, but research has also shown that sleep deprivation may actually lead to depression.
Depression can sap your motivation, so getting to the gym isn’t always the easiest thing in the world—but it’s worth pushing yourself. Exercise can boost your level of endorphins, mood-boosting chemicals in your brain, says Ashwini Nadkarni, MD, a psychiatrist and director of digital care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Along with the endorphin rush, exercise can get you out of the house and get your mind off of negative thoughts.
Research has shown it only takes 15 minutes for bright light to start improving your mood, which is why light therapy is such an effective treatment for seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that strikes during the short-and-gloomy winter days. Even if you deal with depression year-round, sunlight can help by boosting your levels of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin (which is similar to how many antidepressants work).
Probiotics may be better known for their ability to keep certain other bodily functions regular, but recently they’ve been getting hype for their ability to help manage mild depression. The research is still in the early stages, but the results have been promising so far—and since probiotics have so many health benefits, it definitely can’t hurt to add some to your diet.
A few years ago, a Spanish study found that drinking wine could lower your depression risk—but the biggest benefits were seen among the group that drank between 2 and 7 glasses each week. Any more than that, and you could risk having the opposite effect. “Since alcohol acts as a depressant, it can worsen symptoms of depression,” Nadkarni says. And if you start experiencing anxiety after the alcohol wears off, you may want to cut it out altogether.
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Not only can meditation help reduce stress and improve focus, but there’s evidence that a specific form—called mindfulness meditation—may actually help treat depression and prevent relapses. “This type of treatment holds great promise,” Nadkarni says. Getting started is simple: Sit cross-legged on the floor and focus on your breathing. If you find your mind wandering, no worries—just turn your attention back to your breathing.
Writing down your thoughts can help you get a handle on your depression symptoms. “Journaling can be an outlet for emotions and serve as a way for someone to obtain a sense of catharsis,” Nadkarni says. “This may be helpful in letting go of pent-up emotions.” It can also help you notice patterns—like what you worry about the most, or what triggers a low mood.
Social isolation isn’t just a symptom of depression—it can also make it worse, so schedule time for social activities you enjoy, like a book club or a community yoga class. You may even want to consider joining a depression support group where you can connect with people who understand what you’re going through. “Support groups are an excellent way to meet people and make social connections,” Nadkarni says.
Modified Mediterranean diet
A recent clinical trial in Australia found that a modified version of the Mediterranean diet—with plenty of whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, and fruits and veggies—can significantly lessen depression symptoms. The Mediterranean diet has also been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, so it’s a healthy plan whether or not it ends up improving your mood.
If you’re hesitant to see a shrink because you’re worried you’ll automatically be handed a prescription, you’re not alone. A study found that 43% of people are hesitant to mention their depression symptoms to a doctor—and their most common worry was that they’d be put on an antidepressant. But mild depression can often be managed with therapy alone. “Cognitive behavioral therapy helps with depression by helping people to debunk negative thoughts,” Nadkarni says. “Other forms can help people develop alternative coping techniques.”
Connecting with a mental health professional also means you’ll have someone you can reach out to if your symptoms start getting worse, or if you find that natural remedies are no longer cutting it.
If your symptoms seem to be worsening but you’re still reluctant to take a prescription, you may be wondering if a supplement is a viable alternative. The answer: A cautious maybe. Many “natural” supplements—like SAME-e, 5-HTP, St. Johns Wort, and saffron—cause chemical changes in your brain (similar to how antidepressant medication works) and have the potential to cause serious side effects, so even though they’re available without an Rx you should still consult a doctor before trying them.