Let’s talk about what the most powerful lifestyle changes are that you can make when it comes to depression. Whether you have a clinical diagnosis or are just having a low mood, you make choices in your everyday life and change your lifestyle to improve depression. When I look at a patient and I think about their everyday life, I’m looking for a set of seven factors that really can make a difference when it comes to mood and depression.
Number one is nutritional psychiatry and nutrition. This is the notion of looking at food through the lens of what does the brain need, what do the gut and the microbiome need and what are the food categories that we eat every day? This includes leafy greens, nuts, seeds, beans, lots of seafood, and a lot of rainbow vegetables. Getting nutrition dialed in can feel overwhelming if you’re feeling really down and depressed. The good news about nutritional psychiatry is that these are really simple interventions and they are delicious. Simple things make a big difference when it comes to depression over time.
Number two is movement. A lot of the time we think of exercise and it’s great if you work up a sweat, but simply getting out and moving, whether it’s walking, stretching, or going on a bike ride, is essential. I’ve had a lot of patients over the years join dance classes or just engage with their bodies in ways that are incredibly good for depression. Studies have shown that getting some exercise, ideally everyday, but for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week or 150 minutes total a week has a huge impact on both the prevention and the treatment of clinical depression.
Number three is sleep and improving the quality of your sleep. It is important to get consistently good sleep but also to work on the entry into sleep and the things during your day that might negatively impact sleep. Sleep is when our brain cleans itself out. We have this whole system called the glymphatic system in our brain which is how we remove the waste from our brain. The brain burns so much fuel that it also creates a lot of waste. So when we sleep, our brain gets rid of all of that. Sleep is also critical when it comes to keeping your mood up. When we don’t get enough sleep, it’s easier to be irritable, to be negative, to not have a positive mood. So from both a chronic standpoint, improved sleep help in terms of depression risk, but also that day to day sleep and sleep quality is really critical for preventing depression.
Let’s think about stress management. Stress management requires a few things that are hard for all of us. It requires us to set good boundaries so we can manage what’s in front of us. It requires us to have that mental strength and discipline and to have a sense of ourselves and what we prioritize. This means asking ourselves what do we want to be focused on and what do we want to be worried about. Stress management is key if you constantly feel out of control and chaotic. Managing that stress is going to be one of the most important lifestyle changes that you can make. It requires some discipline, some structure, some boundaries, but it pays off huge dividends.
One of the ways that you can get better at stress management is by fostering more mindfulness. Mindfulness gets called a lot of things in the wellness world. Sometimes people talk about meditation and clearing out your mind. Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice but it’s one about mental focusing. This is really important for depression because when we’re struggling, we often have to shift our focus from negative thoughts to positive thoughts or gratitude, or from not feeling motivated, to engaging in motivation, to doing things. Mindfulness allows us to do this. It can be very simple, focusing intently on the food that you’re eating or on the feeling of the air coming into your nose, or on your breath. These are all powerful aspects that help us be more mindful and overall help us have more focus and clarity.
The next one is fostering connectivity. This is important neurologically on a cellular level, when we’re trying to recover or prevent depression we look at connecting neurons. This is also relevant in life. We want to have a sense of being connected. This could mean connected to a community, connected to a support group, friends, family, and connected to your sense of self, which is so hard when you have depression because there’s degradation of that, and often negativity around that. How do we have a good sense of connection? That sounds challenging, especially if you’re struggling with depression. You may not have a lot of self-esteem or confidence, maybe you don’t have a lot of mental clarity or feel unmotivated and just down, so it can be challenging. That’s where having a structure around it is really helpful. This can be things like joining basketball leagues, I’ve joined a barn to learn a new skill of horseback riding, or joining a cooking class. It can be all kinds of things. Maybe it’s something simpler than that, that isn’t as public, but make sure you’re fostering some connections with people. Ideally what’s great for mood and depression is fostering deeper, more intimate connections with people that, of course, just to remember and remind everyone, takes a little bit of time.
Finally, number seven of the most powerful lifestyle changes when it comes to depression is nature. Spend some time in nature every day. Ideally, you should start your day of getting some fresh air. One of my recommendations in my course Healing the Modern Brain is to get early morning light and have a moment with yourself and with nature. I also encourage immersive, big nature experiences. If you can, get out into the vast wilderness, safely, into storms, into weather and into what I call “big nature” is good for our mental health and for depression. It allows us to have a sense of our place in the world and a sense of awe and bigness in the wonder of things.
Those are my seven most powerful lifestyle changes. I hope those help you in your journey, as you’re thinking about mood and depression. You don’t have to do all these at once. I doesn’t have to be an overwhelming list, but should be an empowering list. These are all interventions backed up by science and also ones that we intuitively know help us as human beings feel good and keep our moods up. So please feel my encouragement, engage in these as much as you can, and I hope they help you as you think about improving your mood and fighting depression.