If you struggle with feeling hopeless, sad, or otherwise mentally fragile, you're not alone. More than 60 million Americans—that’s about one in four—are affected by mental health issues every year.
But I believe that conventional medicine, with its symptom-based medicine approach, tackles depression completely wrong. Rather than determine what might actually be causing that depression, many doctors immediately reach for their prescription pad. That explains why one in 10 Americans today uses antidepressants.
But while drugs can be lifesaving in many cases, conventional medicine fails to address the underlying causes of depression and why they differ from one person to the other. Instead, they label the disease and approach the treatment identically—even though the cause of that disease may be radically different from person to person.
Ultimately, drugs like antidepressants don’t cure the disease; they just mask the symptoms.
As a functional medicine doctor, I take a different approach to depression by trying to understand what creates it. To call someone depressed says nothing about the underlying causes that create depression.
I believe the key to this new paradigm is this: Depression is not in our heads. It is in our bodies. When we fix the body, we fix the brain. Our energy, memory, focus, and joy all increase, and depression will likely fade away.
The functional medicine approach to depression is quite simple. We eliminate things that cause imbalances in core systems and provide our body things it needs to heal (like good food, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, and hormones when necessary).
While simple, this approach requires digging deep and connecting patterns. Of course, you might still need therapy or medication. Just don’t assume these will entirely cure the problem if you still have underlying issues.
Without oversimplifying it, here are a few factors that could contribute to depression:
- Low thyroid function
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Folic acid or B12 deficiency
- Omega-3 fats deficiency
- Food allergies
- Bugs in our gut affecting our brain or immune system
- Hormonal imbalances
Starting from that perspective, we can understand how to help treat depression. Of course, doing some sleuthing and trial-and-error testing take work and time—but also remember that the average antidepressant drug takes about six weeks to kick in.
We can change our mind to change our body, but we can also change our body to change our mind! Here are six strategies that I often recommend to my patients to start healing from depression:
1. Eat whole, real food (including fats).
Feed the brain and body with a nutrient-dense, whole, fresh, plant-based diet that includes plenty of protein and healthy fats. Our brain is about 60 percent fat, so it makes sense that eating plenty of healthy fats (including anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids) and protein can help heal our brain.
2. Cut out sugar.
If you've ever eaten something sugary, “crashed” a little later, and felt absolutely miserable, you already know how sugar can hurt your mental health. Plus, studies suggest that sugar consumption can contribute to depression. Become a detective and find hidden sources of sugar to cut out of your diet.
3. Exercise regularly.
Studies suggest that consistent exercise might be as good as or even better than antidepressants for some people. Find a workout plan that you can stick to.
4. Get enough sleep.
5. Manage stress levels.
Constantly feeling stressed out could cause depression. Find what creates calm for you and practice it regularly, whether that's meditation, yoga, or just walking your dog.
6. Take the right nutrients.
Many nutrients can help alleviate depression and support optimal brain health, including omega-3 fatty acids and 5-HTP. I recommend working with an integrative practitioner to customize a nutrient program.