The stress of modern life has given rise to a worldwide epidemic of depression. Mood disorders are more prevalent now than ever before, and they’re occurring at younger ages.
What’s causing this epidemic? Much of the blame may well rest with technology, and the sweeping lifestyle changes it has encouraged.
Our bodies and brains evolved for a Stone Age existence, when daily life was governed by the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of the seasons. Today, people seem to live at a breakneck pace, 24 hours a day, all year long.
Problem: Fast-paced living brings reduced levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a key buffer against depression.
On the advice of their doctors, many people have turned to antidepressants to relieve their malaise. For serious depression, that’s prudent. However, it often makes more sense to find natural, nondrug ways to boost serotonin levels
Get more light
Exposure to bright light has been shown to raise serotonin levels. Unfortunately, indoor lighting averages only 200 to 500 lux. That’s too weak to do the trick. Outdoors, sunlight can climb above 100,000 lux.
Being exposed to artificial light at night (when our ancestors would have been asleep) throws off the production cycle of melatonin. This key neurochemical affects a variety of bodily functions, including serotonin synthesis, making it another important buffer against depression.
Antidote: Get outdoors as much as possible during the day. If you live in a “gray” climate, consider buying a light box (10,000 lux). This device available for $200 and up can be used while reading, exercising or watching TV.
Caution: Light boxes should not be used by people with retinal disease.
Also helpful: Dawn simulators. These devices use light to awaken you naturally on dark winter mornings.
Seek out negative ions
Air with high concentrations of negative ions molecules with an extra electron is clearly linked to positive moods. Unfortunately, city air contains 10 times fewer negative ions than air in the country or by the seashore. Ion concentrations are even lower inside air-conditioned offices.
Antidote: If you can’t live in the country or near the ocean, buy a negative-ion generator. These devices boost serotonin levels, improving mood and promoting sleep. Be sure the machine you buy generates small negative ions. That’s the kind shown to yield psychological benefits.
Get more sleep
Adults today get 20% less sleep than before the invention of the electric light. Most of us need at least eight hours of sleep a night. Nearly 50% of Americans get less.
Sleep deprivation produces a sharp decrease in serotonin levels. It is strongly linked to depression.
Antidote: Make sleep a priority. If you feel sleepy during the day, or if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you probably need more shut-eye.
Strategies: Keep the bedroom cool and dark, avoid work or stimulating TV for at least one hour before bedtime, cut down on caffeine and alcohol, exercise late in the day (but at least five hours before bedtime), rise at the same time each day. On days when you can’t get the sleep you need, nap.
Get regular exercise
Exercise an excellent serotonin booster is linked not only with better moods, but also with better overall health. Yet despite the so called “fitness revolution,” Americans get less exercise today than even 10 years ago. We get far less exercise than our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Antidote: Find an exercise you enjoy, and do it regularly. Aerobic exercise several times a week is ideal, but any kind of exercise is better than none.
Rethink your diet
Our ancestors survived mostly on green plants and small game animals, which were low in fat but high in cholesterol.
Lesson: While some middle-aged men and others at high risk for heart attack should take steps to lower high cholesterol levels, cholesterol levels below 160 confer a heightened risk of depression, accidents and suicide. Apparently, low cholesterol levels interfere with the regulation of serotonin.
That doesn’t mean we should binge on saturated fat. It does suggest that we should be wary of cholesterol levels that are too high or too low.
What about carbohydrates? They do appear to improve serotonin function temporarily. Over the long term, however, a high-carbohydrate diet diminishes your sense of well-being.
Reason: Carbohydrates quickly raise blood sugar and insulin levels. Elevated insulin signals the body to store food as fat making it less available for energy. Insulin also boosts production of certain prostaglandins linked to depression.
Antidote: Eat a diet that’s more in line with that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors
• Emphasize fruits and vegetables
Emphasize fruits and vegetables while limiting consumption of grains and sweets. When you do eat grain, stick to whole grains. They have a less drastic effect on blood sugar than white bread or processed cereal.
• Maintain a protein-fat carbohydrate
At every meal, maintain a protein-fat carbohydrate calorie ratio of 30%-30%-40%.
• Keep meals under 500 calories
Don’t let more than five hours pass between meals (except when you’re asleep). Frequent, small meals keep insulin levels lower than a few large meals.
• Do not eat red meat or egg yolks more than once a week.
These foods contain a chemical precursor to a brain chemical that is associated with depression.
What about antidepressants?
Anyone who is so depressed that he/she has trouble functioning at work or at home should seek a medical diagnosis.
• Fluoxetine (Prozac)
Fluoxetine (Prozac) is the best known of a group of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs avoid many of the serious medical risks of older drugs.
But Prozac can cause decreased libido, delayed orgasm, insomnia and agitation and may suppress melatonin levels.
Over the short term, this is probably not a concern. For patients who take the drug for a year or more, however, the effect on melatonin might have negative implications for longterm mood and health.
• Sertraline (Zoloft)
Sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are similar to Prozac but may be better or worse in a given individual.
Fluvoxamine (Luvox) is another SSRI that appears to have fewer side effects than Prozac. Unlike Prozac, it raises melatonin levels.
Nefazodone affects serotonin more subtly and seems free of Prozac’s most objectionable side effects. It may be particularly helpful in treating depression accompanied by anxiety or insomnia.
Venlafaxine (Effexor) acts on serotonin and boosts levels of norepinephrine (the neurochemical affected by earlier antidepressants called tricyclics). It has a good track record in treating cases that fail to respond to other medication.
Bupropion (Wellbutrin) does not act on serotonin. In fact, we’re not quite sure how it works. In a tiny percentage of cases, it has been associated with seizures. This risk can be minimized by lowering the dosage.