Weil: Mild depression treatable with simple lifestyle changes
December 16th, 2011
07:15 AM ET

Weil: Mild depression treatable with simple lifestyle changes

Andrew Weil is the director of the of the integrative medicine program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and Professor of Medicine and Public Health, author of "8 Weeks to Optimum Health, Healthy Aging," and the forthcoming "Spontaneous Happiness." 

Depression has many forms. Worst among them is the kind characterized by deep, soul-crushing despair, so eloquently described in novelist William Styron's 1992 book, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.”

"The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it. . . . the grey drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. ..it is natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion."

I’m thankful that, unlike Styron, I have never had a major depressive episode. At times in my life, however, I have experienced a depressed mood for most of the day, more days than not, over weeks and even months.

During those periods I also had low energy, feelings of hopelessness, and a strong desire to isolate myself from social interaction.  Sometimes, I would become anxious and agitated as well. (The line between depression and anxiety is notoriously difficult to draw; many sufferers have some components of both.)

Sleep was fitful. Some mornings, I would find it hard to leave my bed and face another long day of gloomy ruminations about disappointments in life and my own shortcomings.

While, from the outside, my circumstances may have seemed enviable - I was a Harvard-trained M.D., a successful author, and had plenty of loyal friends - from my internal vantage point I could see nothing to make me feel cheerful, find nothing to enjoy, no reason to laugh.

It's clear to me now that according to modern psychological classifications, I would have been diagnosed with dysthymic disorder, the commonest form of mild to moderate depression.  It is this diagnosis that accounts for much of the epidemic of depression occurring today.

Many in such circumstances try to boost their mood with alcohol or other substances, but fortunately, my studies of addiction made me aware that such "solutions" usually end badly.

Over the years I tried various forms of psychotherapy and counseling but got little benefit from them.  Once, in my early 40s, I filled a prescription for an antidepressant medication (Zoloft) but gave it up after a few days because I could not tolerate its effects.  It numbed my body and dulled my mind.

This pattern in my emotional life was frequent in my twenties, thirties, and forties, then began to wane.  It has steadily diminished ever since and now rarely recurs, seldom lasting more than a day or two, even when I encounter tough situations.

It's difficult to pinpoint one reason for this welcome change. I think it is the cumulative result of many lifestyle changes I have made through the years. Specifically, I have:

Made a concerted effort to be more physically active. Increased physical activity is perhaps the single most important lifestyle change one can make to reduce the incidence and severity of dysthymia.

Added more omega-3 fatty acids to my diet, through frequent meals of cold-water, wild-caught fatty fish, and high-quality fish oil supplements. Research has firmly established that adequate intake of these vital fats is crucial to optimal emotional health.

Got my vitamin D levels into the optimum range.  Vitamin D deficiency correlates with suboptimal mood and brain function.

Made other dietary improvements, in line with my anti-inflammatory diet.  New research pinpoints a connection between inflammation and depression.
  • Began meditating each morning.  The practice has helped me improve my attention and not get lost in patterns of thought that make me feel unhappy.

If you struggle with dysthymia, take heart. In both my personal and professional experience, I have found it to be highly treatable through simple, safe, inexpensive lifestyle changes.

For a comprehensive overview of mild to moderate depression and my recommendations for preventing or alleviating it, see my new book, "Spontaneous Happiness." I became happier in the course of writing it and learned a great deal about the effectiveness of simple interventions.

For example, I was impressed by how much scientific evidence exists for the power of gratitude to boost mood. Feeling and expressing gratitude for the blessings you have is a powerful way of enhancing emotional well-being.  All you have to do is remember to do it.

For more on Andrew Weil's experience with depression, watch “Sanjay Gupta, M.D." at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.

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