Some people find herbal remedies and dietary supplements useful in relieving the symptoms of depression. Herbs and supplements commonly used for this purpose include:
- amino acids and their precursors
- folate or folic acid
- St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
Scientific evidence supports the effectiveness of at least one herbal remedy (St. John’s wort) and two dietary supplements (DHEA and SAMe) for reduction of depressive symptoms. However, herbal remedies and dietary supplements do not help all people and in some cases, the effectiveness of these treatments has not been completely established.
You’re grumpy at the groundhog (who needed extra weeks of winter?) and a little short with your spouse, and you have been spending more time with the mac-and-cheese casserole than the treadmill. Winter can do that. But it doesn’t have to. Use these strategies to cuff the classic energy thieves that are still hanging around this time of year, and get your mojo back before spring hits:
Energy thief #1: Short, dark days.
What happens: Short days can cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — neurochemical changes in your brain due to lack of sunlight. This results in depression in up to 6% of Americans (the further north you go, the more likely you are to be a SAD sufferer). From late fall until spring, people with SAD become depressed, sleep too much, withdraw from friends, and battle low energy and relentless carb cravings.
Turn it around: Light therapy — sitting in front of a special box that shines ultra bright lights — has long been considered to be the best way to combat SAD. But a new University of Vermont study reveals that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be even better. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps people outsmart depression by teaching them to change their negative ways of thinking. In fact, in this study, CBT alone was able to stomp out SAD with a success rate of 81% (compared with 49% for CBT plus light therapy and 32% for light therapy alone). Why wouldn’t more therapies be better? Researchers surmise that trying to balance two therapies was just too confusing, but CBT alone allowed people to focus on the coping skills they needed to banish their winter blues.
Energy thief #2: You can’t get enough comfort.
What happens: When the mercury heads south, we crave calories, carbs (they help our brains make the calming neurotransmitter serotonin), and fat. In fact, a 2006 University of Massachusetts Medical School study found that once the days become shorter, we pack away an average of 86 extra calories a day and weigh more than at any other time of year. We also snarf down more total and artery-clogging saturated fat.
Turn it around: Just cozy up to good-for-you carbs and healthy omega-3 and omega-9 fats that will satisfy your biology and your brain without packing on a gratuitous layer of blubber.
Trade meatloaf and pot roast for hearty whole grains like whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, or try polenta, a veggie burger, or salmon. Or warm up with a satisfying bean-based vegetable chili or Tuscan white bean soup. Since beans and whole grains are digested slowly, they’ll keep you full longer, so you’ll eat less overall. And if it seems like there are slim pickings in the produce department, now is actually the prime time to load up on nutrient-packed starches, including sweet potatoes and winter squash (roast or bake them with a drizzle of olive oil). Finish your feast with seasonal winter fruit (think apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, or even frozen berries) topped with a sprinkle of heart-healthy walnuts or almonds and you’ll get all the carbs and fats your body craves — but you’ll do it the healthy way.
Energy thief #3: You stay in. On the couch.
What happens: Your workout plan bites the dust. We log less exercise in winter than any other time of year, with a paltry 45% of Americans and 36% of Canadians keeping active. Pretty ironic, since exercise can lift you out of the winter doldrums by boosting energy, improving mood, and helping you sleep better.
Turn it around: Start with your schedule. Make regular exercise appointments on your calendar the same way you’d ink in any other non-negotiable activity. But give yourself a bit of a break: Don’t think exercise needs to be a hard-core trip to the gym. Taking the dog for an extra-long walk or doing crunches and lifting weights in front of the TV count, too. Still uninspired? Try the 10-minute rule. Make a deal with yourself to get moving for at least 10 minutes. Chances are, once you start, you’ll feel so much better that you’ll keep going.
Some of us just can’t live without our morning coffee fix. And some of us may be feeling a little guilty about that.
Not to worry. Your morning cup of joe could actually be helping you live longer. A recent study has linked coffee drinking to a reduced risk of death, regardless of the cause.
Healthy or Not, Here I Come!
Over the years, research has produced mixed results on the health benefits of coffee. But a recent study was a win for the earthy brew. Heavy java drinkers (2 or more cups per day) experienced a modest decrease in all-cause mortality, including death from heart disease. We can probably credit the antioxidant-rich beans used to brew the stuff. In fact, Americans drink so much coffee that it’s one of our top sources of antioxidants.
So what are the caveats for coffee drinking? There are only a few. If you are sensitive to caffeine, you don’t need to be told not to be a java junkie. And unfiltered coffee can raise blood fats, so use paper filters and ditch the French press. Although it remains to be seen if coffee has a long-term impact on blood pressure, we know it can cause a temporary spike, so go easy if you have high blood pressure. And — as always — do everything in moderation. A pot-a-day habit probably doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Build on other depression treatments with small steps to feel better every day.
In addition to the scientifically supported treatments for major depression — antidepressants, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two — there are other steps you can take to help lift your mood and support your recovery. Although clinical depression can rob you of energy, motivation, and the desire to do things that you once enjoyed, remember that inactivity can make depression worse. Staying active will distract you from negative thoughts, and it’s one of the best things you can do to cope with major depressive disorder (MDD).
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recommends these self-help strategies to ease the burden on yourself while you’re depressed:
- Don’t wait to seek treatment for major depression. The earlier you start treatment, the better (and faster) your recovery will be.
- Set realistic goals. Treating major depression isn’t a quick fix, and improvement can be subtle. For example, you may start sleeping better or eating better before your mood brightens.
- Stay active. Whether it’s exercise, cooking, going to the movies, or dinner with friends, return to activities you once enjoyed. As your treatment starts to take effect, you’ll find yourself enjoying your favorite activities again.
- Be around other people. Isolating yourself from others worsens major depression, but spending time with family and friends helps boost your mood so you can stick with your treatment program.
- Don’t let everyday activities overwhelm you. Divide major tasks into smaller chunks, set priorities, and do what you can.
- Don’t accept roles with a great deal of responsibility, which can be overwhelming when you’re depressed.
- Recognize negative thinking as a symptom of clinical depression. Try to reframe negative thoughts in a positive light.
- Don’t engage in self-blame while experiencing depressed mood.
- Postpone major life decisions until you get relief from depressive symptoms. Don’t change jobs, relocate, enter into or end a primary relationship, or make major financial choices when you’re in the grip of major depression.
- Each day, make it a point to identify one positive reason to make it through the day.
Say “get iron,” and most people think they need a side of beef — or at least a hefty plateful — to stave off fatigue and refuel their immune system. The fact is, you don’t need red meat at all to get plenty of iron to power you through your fusion yoga class, four client presentations, dinner with your in-laws (but you might need some red wine here), a walk with the dog, and maybe another type of romp or two in a day.
Too much red meat can overload you with heme iron, a form of the mineral that can boost your risk of type 2 diabetes. We know you already know that meat can overload you with saturated fat.
Fortunately, heme iron is far easier to dodge than the perfume-spritzing people at the mall. Plant-based foods contain only nonheme iron, which is free of any dirty links to diabetes. It’s pretty easy for men to get what they need — about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron a day — from food: A cup of cooked spinach alone contains 6.4 mg, versus 3.4 mg for a burger. Other good options: kidney beans (3.6 mg per half cup), oatmeal (3.4 mg per cup), and almonds (1 mg per ounce).
However, premenopausal women need about 18 mg a day, so taking a multi with iron is smart, especially since iron from plants tends to be harder to absorb than iron from meat. Help your body soak it up with these tricks:
1. Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods. (Think oatmeal and OJ, chili with beans. See? It’s easy.)
2. Calcium blocks absorption of iron, so separate your calcium supplement and your spinach by a few hours.
3. Coffee and tea interfere with iron, so keep those apart, too.
Forget swaying pocket watches and deep trances. “Hypnosis is a state of highly focused attention,” says David Spiegel, the director of Stanford School of Medicine’s Center on Stress and Health. If done properly, hypnosis can clear your mind, lower your heart rate, and decrease muscle tension. Close your eyes and picture a movie screen with something stressful, like rush-hour traffic, on the left side. Now, visualize a solution playing out on the right, like discovering a new route with no traffic. Eventually, you’ll feel a moment of intense absorption, he explains, like when you’re so caught up in a good movie that you forget where you are. Try doing this for five minutes, three or four times a day.
(Really) Forgive Someone
Although it may be tempting to rehash the details of how your sister’s boyfriend snubbed you, letting go of negative feelings really does lower stress. “When our minds keep rehearsing troubling interactions, the body’s calming system becomes impaired,” says Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College in Holland, Mich. A cursory hug won’t do, though. You have to sincerely replace your anger toward the wrongdoer with an attempt to understand the reasons behind his actions. “Forgiveness helps you see more of the truth, not less. When we are upset, our vision is limited in scope,” says Witvliet.
Open the Window
Just looking out your window can have a relaxing effect. In a study led by Peter Kahn, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, participants in an office were shown one of three views: a natural setting, a digital display of the same scene, and no view. When stress levels were artificially increased, those looking at the real natural scene returned to their normal heart rate more quickly. Those who looked at the digital display did no better than those looking at a blank wall, suggesting the brain is not easily fooled. “We do best mentally and physically when we’re connected to nature,” says Kahn.
Send Yourself Flowers
“Without question, stress is mitigated by nature,” says Mehmet C. Oz, coauthor of “You: Stress Less” (Simon & Schuster). Scientists at Harvard University delivered flowers to one group of women and gave candles to a second group. Within a week, the first group felt less anxious and depressed, perhaps because humans are comforted by vegetation—a means of survival in caveman days. Oz suggests keeping a plant on your desk and cut flowers at the dinner table.
A kiss (or two) a day can keep the stress away. You’ll feel less isolated, which is a common source of anxiety. According to Laura Berman, a professor of obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry at Northwestern University, women in particular respond to locking lips by releasing endorphins. She recommends at least one ten-second kiss a day — deep and emotional, but not necessarily sexually arousing. “Just enjoy the physical connection,” she says.
Take a Time-Out
You don’t need to slip into bed to get the benefits of a good rest. Kate Hanley, author of “The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Simple Strategies for Serenity” (Skirt!), suggests a simple exercise you can do at your desk that is just as refreshing as a nap:
- Keeping both feet on the floor, stack your forearms on the edge of the table.
- Scoot back in your chair so your spine is extended.
- Rest your forehead on your arms for a minute or two.
This opens the neck and shoulders, where physical tension commonly builds up, and creates space in your rib cage for deep breathing. Visualize your next task going well, or simply focus on your heartbeat. Either way, this exercise gives you a break.
Take it Easy
Working out is a great way to take a bite out of tension—but think twice before you sign up for a boot camp. “When you are mentally tired, intense exercise adds to the stress you are feeling,” says Samuele M. Marcora, a physiologist at the University of Kent in England. After a draining day, he suggests a moderate-intensity workout, like walking or light running. “It won’t improve your fitness level, but it is good for the mood.”
Yoga is a proven stress buster, but not all poses give the same relief. Inverted stances, such as back bends and headstands, may have a greater effect on your mood and anxiety, say researchers. The part of the nervous system that relaxes the body and mind may be stimulated when the spine is bent, explains Chris Streeter, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
Go Into the Light
“Stress can be triggered when our bodies don’t know what time it is,” says Julie Holland, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. “Exposing your retina to sunlight resets your circadian rhythm so your brain is on a schedule.” Take a walk outside without sunglasses for 20 minutes a day, three times a week. Phototherapy lamps and vitamin-D supplements also help.
Watch a Tearjerker
If you’re still crying your contacts out on your 100th viewing of “Blue Valentine,” try watching it a 101st time with a new outlook: A recent study suggests that thinking positively while watching a sad movie may help you cope with setbacks in the real world. Women who had experienced stress were shown sad scenes from movies such “I Am Sam” and “Fatal Attraction” and asked to come up with happy endings and good advice for the characters. Test subjects who were best at this showed fewer signs of depression than women who watched the movies passively, says Allison S. Troy, a researcher at the University of Denver. Solving other people’s problems is always easier, she says. Practicing as you make your way through your Netflix queue may sharpen your skills.
Treat Your Allergies
Itchy eyes and a runny nose aren’t the only plagues of allergy season: Stress may rise with the pollen count. Alvaro Guzman, a psychiatrist at the National Center for the Treatment of Phobias, Anxiety and Depression in Washington, D.C., says research shows that patients with seasonal allergies often report stress, mood dips, and depression when symptoms flare. “When we have an allergic reaction, chemicals are produced in our blood that can aggravate mood changes,” he says. If you notice your stress levels peaking when the weather is changing, Guzman suggests getting tested for allergies.
Drop an F-Bomb
Saying what you really think about the boss over a couple of martinis has its advantages. After observing groups in various workplaces, Yehuda Baruch, a professor of management at Rouen Business School in France, found that people swear as a coping mechanism to release stress. When upset with a difficult customer, one test subject pretended to carry on a conversation as if the client were still on the phone, but with profanity to describe exactly how she felt. In the real world, Baruch warns to use common sense. “Stay professional and never swear in front of someone who would be offended.”
You’re sitting on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reruns — just like last weekend. And instead of becoming absorbed, part of your brain stays focused on the looming deadlines that have been nagging at you at work. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of “Women Who Think Too Much” (Henry Holt), says, “Overthinking without being able to resolve anything draws us deeper into a feeling of being overwhelmed.” A pastime that requires you to pay attention or engage with other people—like tackling a new recipe, taking a foreign-language class, or playing tennis—lets you escape from your own spinning head and break the cycle.
Surround Yourself With Beauty
Admiring a photo of a model or a movie star just as you would a work of art could relieve tension. Half a group of people who viewed photos of females wearing makeup said they were less stressed afterward, according to a study at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The other half did not report the same benefit, but they didn’t feel any worse, says Patrick Pössel, a professor of psychology who conducted the study.
Be a Pescatarian
Battling stress can be as simple as ordering fish at a restaurant. On “The Truth About Food,” a program on the Discovery Health Channel, researchers measured hormone levels in London cabdrivers, who have highly stressful jobs. When put on a diet of four portions a week of oily fish like mackerel, a source of omega-3 fatty acids, the drivers produced less of the stress hormone cortisol and more of DHEA, a hormone the body cranks out to combat stress. “When the body sees omega-3 fatty acids, it feels calm,” says Oz. Walnuts, flaxseeds, and tofu are other excellent sources.