Depression can come from a complicated web of causes, including brain chemistry and hormonal imbalances, stressful events, genetics, and myriad other medical conditions. Sometimes, prescribed antidepressants are necessary, but evidence-based natural remedies can also help. Here, top integrative and naturopathic doctors’ suggestions for lessening symptoms and boosting mood.
1. Go with your gut
Optimizing digestion and the health of your gut microbiome is critical for troubleshooting mood, says Deborah Ann Ballard, MD, MPH, a physician at Duke Integrative Medicine. The highest concentration of serotonin, a primary mood influencer, is made by bacteria in the digestive tract. When your gut is inflamed and irritable, the discomfort can perpetuate depression. One solution: keeping your gut populated with beneficial bacteria. If you experience gas, bloating, constipation, or other gastrointestinal woes—often signs that bad bacteria is running amok—try a general probiotic, which will restore a healthy microbiome and help support the natural production of serotonin. In clinical trials, the probiotic strains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria appeared to be most helpful for mental health.
2. Dial in your nutrition
Some research suggests that supplements such as St. John’s wort, L-theanine, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fish oil can help improve symptoms of depression—but Ballard says most deficiencies can be solved with food. Her advice? Get the micro and macro nutrients you need for emotional regulation and physical health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B, and magnesium, by eating lots of colorful vegetables and lean proteins. Avoid processed sugar and carbs that can lead to inflammation, which has been linked to depression.
3. Sleep it off
Peter Bongiorno, a naturopathic doctor and author of Holistic Solutions for Anxiety & Depression in Therapy, emphasizes the importance of getting good sleep when you’re dealing with depression: Exhaustion can be an underlying cause as well as a symptom. Sleep is often erratic when you’re down. Setting a routine bedtime will help regulate your shut-eye schedule, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
4. Keep moving
Know what else can help you sleep better? Moving your body, especially outside. Sunlight helps reset your circadian rhythms (a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle). Ballard recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week, plus a few 30-minute sessions (yoga included) focused on strength and balance training.
5. Find 5 minutes for mindfulness
Good news for the busy: Just four 5-minute sessions of breath-focused meditation can help improve quality of life and ease negative thoughts, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to quiet the default mode network of our brains, decreasing the rumination and worry often associated with depression and helping to create new neural pathways that aren’t entrenched in negativity.
6. Try therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a form of treatment that focuses on changing patterns of thinking and behaving—and other forms of counseling can help you understand the toxic elements in your life and help you feel resourced enough to face them. They can also get your brain tuned in to more positive ways of feeling, being, and thinking, Ballard says. A recent study on effective treatments for depression published in the journal the Lancet reported that 66 percent of adults showed signs of improvement after CBT.
7. Spark creativity
When you are depressed, it is harder to move out of the trenches of negativity, which is why Ballard recommends finding creative outlets. “We try to help people stimulate the parts of their brains that are associated with joy, creativity, love, and curiosity,” she says. Try making art, reading, or incorporating visualization into your meditation. Guided imagery, a practice of visualizing what someone is describing, can help ease symptoms of depression and fatigue, and improve mood and physical and mental quality of life, per studies.
8. Go upside down
“Inversions naturally stimulate oxygen-rich blood flow to your brain, boosting energy and making you feel happier right away,” says yoga teacher Nadia Zaki, founder of Constantly Evolving and the Inner Series Method. Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose) is a deeply rejuvenating pose that’s accessible almost anywhere and has been shown to improve digestion and sleep, and alleviate depression and anxiety.
9. Challenge yourself
Sometimes the best way out is through. Yoga teaches us to be still in moments of discomfort. Tough poses such as Kakasana (Crow Pose) can be nerve-racking to try, Zaki says. But when you learn to get comfortable with this kind of physical tension, you may end up feeling more at ease in other parts of your life.
This story is part of Yoga Journal’s Special Report: How Yoga Can Improve Your Mental Health