For many people living with depression, prescription medications can be life-saving drugs. Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac (fluoxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline), are the most widely prescribed medication for depression, and while they are often effective, they can have side effects and be expensive depending on your health insurance coverage.
There are many ways to counter some of the symptoms of depression that don’t involve prescription medications. If you have depression, you might like to try managing it naturally without medication or supplement your antidepressant with other options. If so, check out these natural alternatives and then talk to your doctor about which might make sense as part of your treatment regimen.
This article discusses some natural treatments that may help fight depression including lifestyle changes and supplements. It also covers other strategies you might try such as practicing mindfulness or enhancing your home environment.
Get More Sleep
Sleep and mood go hand in hand. Get too little of the former and the latter is bound to be affected whether you have depression or not. To support your emotional well-being, make sure you have what sleep experts call “good sleep hygiene.
This means you keep consistent bedtimes and wake-up times, your bedroom is set up for sound sleep (it’s dark, quiet, and uncluttered), you have a relaxing bedtime routine that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen, and so on.
This can be complex. Not only is poor sleep thought to contribute to the onset of depression, but depression may then cause low quality sleep.
Whether you can’t seem to get any sleep or can’t seem to stop sleeping, there are steps you can take to try to improve the quality of your sleep:
- Give yourself time to unwind before you go to bed; do something relaxing and avoid stressful tasks or thoughts.
- Go to bed at the same time each night, and set an alarm so that you wake at the same time each morning.
- Have a consistent bedtime routine.
- Turn off your devices and try reading a book for a few minutes.
Also, try to spend a little time outside each day, even on days when you are tempted to draw the shades and hide indoors. Light plays an important role in regulating sleep cycles and circadian rhythms, so a lack of sunshine may be making it more difficult to sleep at night.
Cut Back on Caffeine
Coffee, tea, soda, and even chocolate are steeped in caffeine. It’s fine to consume a reasonable amount of caffeine in the morning if you enjoy it, but avoid it after late afternoon so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.
If you do tend to rely on caffeine, try cutting back gradually in order to avoid unpleasant symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. When you are craving a soda or cup of coffee, try going for a short walk around the block instead.What to Know About Caffeine Use
Get More Vitamin D
There’s some evidence that a vitamin D deficiency could play a role in depression. If you aren’t getting enough vitamin D through your diet and lifestyle (like sun exposure), ask your doctor if you should try taking a supplement.
Certain nutrient deficiencies can play a role in depression symptoms. If you are having a difficult time spending enough time outdoors or if overcast weather conditions make it hard to get sunshine, a supplement may be useful.
Try Natural Remedies
Some research suggests that there are natural antidepressants that may be helpful for reducing symptoms of depression. For treating mild to moderate depression, dietary supplements such as S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), and 5-Hydroxytryptophan may be worth a try.
Research has shown that St. John’s wort is more effective than a placebo at relieving symptoms in those with mild-to-moderate depression.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been investigated for their potential impact on depression. One 2015 study found that taking omega-3 supplements may help reduce symptoms of depression in both adults and children, although researchers are not entirely sure how or why.
While natural remedies can be good options for depression treatment, you should always consult your healthcare provider before taking them. Just because they’re available without a prescription and are touted as natural doesn’t mean they’re always safe.
Additionally, research on some of these natural antidepressants remains inconclusive and some may cause unwanted side effects or drug interactions. For example, mixing St. John’s wort with an SSRI such as Prozac can lead to a complication called serotonin syndrome. Also, SAM-e carries a risk for hypomania/mania in bipolar disorder.
Some herbs and other supplements may work as natural antidepressants, but that does not mean that they are safe and appropriate for everyone or come without side effects. The effectiveness of these natural remedies is also not always clear, so always talk to your doctor first.
Tap Into Your Spirituality
Religion can be an impactful source of support for many people dealing with depression, but there is no need to join a church, synagogue, or mosque unless you wish to. Simple daily practices such as meditation or adding to a list of things you’re grateful can help boost mood and overall well-being.
Meditation can have a range of beneficial effects such as lowering stress levels and helping people to become more aware of their thoughts and reactions.
Research indicates that an intervention called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), which combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness meditation, can be helpful in treating depression and preventing future relapses of symptoms.9
Studies also suggest that different types of mindfulness meditative practices can also be effective in the treatment of depression.10
There are many different types of meditation, but you can get started with a simple meditative exercise with these steps:
- Sit comfortably.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe naturally.
- Focus on how your body feels while you breathe.
- When your mind wanders, redirect your attention back to your breathing.
Get More Exercise
Getting more exercise doesn’t have to mean training for a marathon, but it does mean putting in a half-hour or so of low-intensity activity each day, which has been found to be effective in improving mood and quality of life. Even better, take it outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are especially healing for folks dealing with a special form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
While research has shown that regular physical activity can be effective in both the prevention and treatment of depression,12 it can be hard to start an exercise habit when you’re depressed. Lack of energy and low mood may mean that you simply feel too fatigued to get up and get active.
Some things that you can try to stick to your habit:
- Enlist a friend. Ask a loved one to walk with you or do another form of exercise at least a few times a week. Having the support of a friend can not only help get you into a routine, but it can also help you maintain those social connections when you are feeling down.
- Remind yourself of the benefits. Getting started is tough, but doing it is something that will help you feel better in the long term.
- Start small. Try walking for just a few minutes each day, then work on gradually increasing your walks.
Alcohol in and of itself is a depressant. Drinking can interfere with sleep, and quality sleep is a key to battling the blues. While alcohol might seem like a quick fix to escape what you are feeling, it can actually make many of the symptoms of depression feel much worse.
Not only that, but it can decrease inhibitions and potentially lead to risky behaviors and bad decisions that can have long-term consequences.
If you’re taking any sort of antidepressant, you really shouldn’t drink at all. Alcohol doesn’t interact well with medication.
If you have been misusing alcohol or other substances and need help quitting, talk to your doctor. You may also have Withdrawal symptoms may temporarily worsen symptoms of depression, so you may need extra assistance as you go through the recovery process.How Substance Use Can Lead to Mood Disorders
Eat ‘Good Mood’ Food
What you eat can have a direct effect on how you think and feel. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet that’s rich in nutrients. A nutritionist or dietitian can help you analyze your eating habits and pinpoint potential nutrient deficiencies that could contribute to depression.
Some foods that may be especially beneficial when you have depression include:
- Fish: Research has found that people who ate a diet high in fish were less likely to have symptoms of depression. Fish are high in omega-3 fats, which play a role in helping neurotransmitters such as serotonin work in the brain.
- Nuts: Nuts are also a good source of omega-3 fats and one study indicated that people who ate walnuts were 26% less likely to have symptoms of depression.
- Probiotics: Research is increasingly pointing to a connection between gut and brain health. Foods high in probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha.
Change Your Thoughts
Pollyanna-ish as it may sound, thinking good thoughts can help you feel good. Your thoughts truly do have a direct bearing on your mood. If you’re struggling with negativity, consider seeing a therapist to help you learn ways to counter it.
One of the most popular and effective treatments used in the treatment of depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of psychotherapy focuses on identifying negative thinking patterns and then replacing them with more positive ones. There are different ways that you can practice some of these ideas on your own.
Learn to Recognize Negative Thinking
Sometimes these thoughts can be obvious, such as times when you berate or criticize yourself. Other times, they can be more subtle. You might find yourself engaging in things like catastrophizing or all-or-nothing thinking.
Catastrophizing involves always anticipating negative outcomes. All-or-nothing thinking means that you think of things as either successes or failures with no in-between. Once you get better at recognizing these cognitive patterns, you can start working on some healthier replacements.
Reframe Your Thoughts
When you find yourself having a negative thought, consciously reframe it in a positive way. For example, you might replace something like “This will never work” with something more positive such as, “Here are a few things that I can try that will help me get started.” Shifting your focus to your strengths and abilities can help you maintain a more positive mindset.
CBT is an effective treatment for depression that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of depression. You can try these strategies on your own by becoming more aware of negative thinking and shifting them to be more realistic and positive.Tips for Changing Negative Thinking
Get a Handle on Stress
Stress can drive up levels of a brain chemical called cortisol, which has been found to be higher in folks with depression.18 There are lots of strategies for coping with stress, such as time management, meditation, and biofeedback training.
Some stress-relieving activities that you might want to incorporate into your daily life include:
- Deep breathing: A few minutes to slow your breathing and focus your attention on your body in the moment can help you get a better handle on your worries.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity is a great way to blow off steam.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: This process involves intentionally tightening muscles throughout the body, holding that tension for several counts, and then releasing that tension until the muscles are completely relaxed. With regular practice, you may be able to learn how to intentionally relax your body fairly quickly whenever you are feeling tense.
Learning to manage your stress takes time and practice. Talk to your doctor or therapist about other strategies you might try to minimize the stress and your response to it.Stress Management Techniques for All Types of Stress
Add Greenery to Your Home or Office
You may also find it helpful to add indoor plants to your home or office environment. Natural settings are associated with improved mental well-being, so it makes sense that “bringing the outdoors in” might help improve your mood.
Studies have shown that adding indoor plants to your home or office can help in a variety of ways, including:
- Improving the workplace: Research has shown that office spaces enhanced with indoor plants improve worker concentration and workplace satisfaction.
- Reducing stress levels: Another study found that actively interacting with indoor plans by caring for them can reduce both physiological and psychological stress.
- Decreasing depression and anxiety: Research has found that students who spent most of their time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic had better mental health if they were exposed to more green plants. While about a third of the participants reported symptoms of moderate depression, those exposed to more greenery had lower levels of depression and anxiety.
Choosing certain plants may provide additional benefits. For example, research suggests that the scent of a lavender plant can help people feel calmer and more relaxed. No matter what type of plants you choose, greenery can be a great way to beautify your surroundings and potentially improve your mood.
What Houseplants Can Do for Your Mental Health
Tend to Your Social Life
When you’re depressed, there’s no reason to go it alone, and there are all sorts of reasons to reach out to friends and family. Make plans with loved ones and keep those dates. Join a club or sign up for a group activity such as a local dodgeball league or a French class.
Other things you might try:
- Join a support group. Talking to other people who are going through similar experiences and challenges can be informative and helpful.
- Schedule activities. Having routines can be helpful when you are going through depression. Create a daily schedule that includes spending time with others. You are more likely to stick to it if it’s a scheduled event.
- Volunteer. Joining a cause that you care about is a great way to meet new people and expand your social circle.
The problem is that depression often causes people to withdraw, which only further exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even when you don’t feel like going out or being social, try reaching out in whatever way is most comfortable for you. Enlist a few of your closest loved ones who understand what you are experiencing.
Doing the things you used to do might not bring you quite the same enjoyment when you are depressed, but getting out of the house and spending time with people who care about you can help you feel better.
Try New Things
Depression often zaps your interest and motivation to explore new things. You might find it helpful to develop a list of things you might like to try, then work through them one at a time. You might have to compel yourself to try them, and you might find that you don’t necessarily have the motivation to pursue new things beyond your initial attempt.
But over time, you might find that something sparks your interest or helps you feel more motivated. It’s not always easy, but consider making it a goal to try at least one new thing each week. It may help you fight off a sense of boredom and give you something to look forward to.
Have a Daily Routine
The symptoms of depression can also make it difficult to stick to a schedule, but research suggests that can be critical for mental health. Maintaining a routine can also help you hold on to a sense of normalcy and stability when you are dealing with feelings of depression, stress, or anxiety.
Not having a daily routine, on the other hand, can increase your feelings of stress and leave you feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus. So work on having a schedule that includes the basic things you need to get done as well as plenty of self-care.
Listen to Upbeat Music
There’s no doubt that choosing the right music when you’re feeling down might be an effective way of lifting your mood.
Research has found people who are depressed may have a tendency to choose music that intensifies rumination, sadness, and emotion-focused coping. So while you might be tempted to turn to somber tearjerkers when you’re feeling down, consider listening to more upbeat songs to boost your mood and inspire positive feelings.
Depression is a serious condition that may grow worse over time if left untreated. There are a number of natural ways to combat feelings of depression if you don’t want to take prescription antidepressant medication.
These strategies can also be helpful when used to complement treatments that may include psychotherapy and medication.
You should talk to your doctor or therapist to find the best approach to treating your depression. Many lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep may help improve your symptoms.
Always talk to your healthcare provider before taking any supplements to treat depression, since these might have side effects of their own or may interfere with or interact with other medications you may be taking.