How to Treat Depression Without Medication: What The Science Says
Is it possible to treat depression without medication or antidepressants? There is a simple answer to this question: Yes. Yes, it is. Most people don’t know that you can treat depression at home, medication-free. If they do, most people don’t know how. The fact is, you don’t need pills to reduce depressive symptoms or even to recover from depression. By making a few lifestyle changes at home, your symptoms may decrease significantly or disappear altogether. This text introduces five different treatments for depression and none of them includes antidepressant medication.
So, what, according to research, are the five most effective drug-free treatments for depression?
According to the latest health research, there are at least five different ways to effectively treat depression without any medication. Fortunately, four out of five of these ways are completely free.
Let’s jump right in.
Treat depression without medication—from home
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1. Diet as depression treatment
Our first medication-free depression treatment is about changing your diet.
In 2017, Esther Vermeulen (PhD candidate in nutritional epidemiology at the University of Amsterdam) and her colleagues found that people who eat a lot of red meat, added sugars, high-fat dairy products, fried foods and creamy sauces experience more depressive symptoms and depressed moods than others. 4969 people participated in the HELIUS study. This means that sugar and fat equals low mood. It also means that a meal at our nearest fast food restaurant is not as cheap and convenient as it seems. We eventually pay for it with our mental health.
You get the point. It’s a good idea to stay away from too much fat and sugar when depressed. But what foods will act as a depression treatment?
What to eat to treat depression without medication
How diet can leave you feeling better – or worse
Eating green vegetables, fruits, and nuts can help the body to fight depression. In fact, one study has pointed out that individuals who consume lower quantities of fruits and greens are more likely to suffer from depression.
Other foods like walnuts that are rich in omega-3-fatty acids can improve brain function and reduce depression. Multiple studies also seem to confirm that a Mediterranean diet — all about the whole grains, fish, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and, of course, the unrivaled cold pressed olive oil, is effective for depression treatment.
Nutritionally speaking, the best ways to start treating depressive symptoms is to make sure you’re getting enough:
🥬 Vegetables (especially green leafs)
🌰 Nuts (including almonds)
The reason these nutrition-rich foods help you feel better is because a well-nourished body is better equipped to handle stress, physical illness and difficult life events
World-leading expert on diet and mental health, Professor Felice N Jacka at the Department of Psychiatry at Deakin University, has studied the positive effects of the traditional Mediterranean diet on depression.
In the 2017 SMILES trial Professor Jacka and her colleagues found found that 30% of depressed participants recovered after switching from the western diet pattern to this naturally antidepressant diet.
To learn more about what to eat and what to avoid to reduce depressive symptoms, check out the free therapy app from Flow Neuroscience. It’s a complete treatment programme made by experienced psychologists and covers everything from diet to exercise to mindfulness.
Now, let’s move on to our next medication-free depression treatment.
2. Exercise helps treat depression without medication
No article about evidence-based depression treatments would be complete without mentioning regular exercise.
Exercise is a powerful, natural method of treating depressive disorder that rivals both antidepressants and psychotherapy in its efficacy. Consider the chemistry: exercise causes the body to release chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins not only make us “feel good” but also act as an analgesic and reduce the feeling of pain.
Exercise also supports brain plasticity. A 2021 study in Germany found that physical activity enhances neuroplasticity in non depressed people and improves clinical symptoms of major depressive disorder.
Why does exercise feel so good for the brain?
How can simple walking be so beneficial for the brain and just as effective as medication for treating depressive symptoms? Neuroscientists Dr. Julia C. Basso and Dr. Wendy Suzuki explain that when you exercise, chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin are released in your brain. These chemicals make you feel happiness and pleasure. And working up a sweat isn’t limited to its immediate effects. Long-term, thanks to all that improved plasticity, exercising actually creates new brain cells, making your brain more resistant to depression and other diseases.
So how much exercise is enough to treat depressive symptoms?
Is it enough to do some stretching or do you need daily spin classes to fix depression? The answer is somewhere in between. Regular walking is an excellent strategy for treating depressive symptoms without medication. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University, gives us the exact recipe:
- 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week is enough to get out of depression
You don’t need more than that, but it’s important to work up a sweat. If you’re new to exercising, you might experience some side effects: skin flushing, heart racing and heavy breathing. Don’t worry. This is not some sort of allergy, just a greeting from your sympathetic nervous system. A lot of people struggle with exercise, especially when going through depression. Try to start small if you’re a beginner. All the data says that frequency and consistency are more important than intensity at the start. That is, take a 10-minute walk instead of a 30-minute jog and add a few minutes every time you go out.
Watch: the benefits of exercising for treating depression without medication:
3. Meditate to protect yourself from depression
Sometimes meditation can replace medication
Another invaluable tool that will help you treat depression without medication, is regular meditation exercises. Regular meditation practice can help you out of a depressive episode and prevent you from falling back into one a second time.
One study reveals that 63.6% of the subjects say regular meditation was helpful in moving out of mental health crises and negative thinking.
Meditation is a mind-body health practice that has multiple benefits beyond improving your mental well-being.
Think of meditation as maintenance for your mood. It can help you handle emotions better, spot signs of depression earlier and stop your symptoms from worsening.
Meditation essentially involves three simple steps:
- Direct your focus to the present moment (for example by noticing your breathing).
- Try not to judge what you find.
- When you get distracted by thoughts (because you will), bring back your focus over and over again.
This is great exercise for your brain and it will help you treat depression without medication.
Mindfulness meditation and depressive thoughts
Meditation is so effective against depression partly because mindfulness empowers you to handle the painful negative thoughts depression can bring. If you are someone who struggles to manage negative intrusive thoughts, check out the video below. The first shows how a negative thought can turn into a full blown depressive spiral. The second video shows how to stop this spiral at an early stage, using only mindfulness techniques.
Can meditation change the structure of the brain?
Meditation will most likely help your brain handle strong emotions better, which can be valuable when trying to treat depression without medication.
In 2010, Dr. Norman Farb (Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada) and his colleagues wanted to find out if people who meditated regularly reacted differently to sadness than those who didn’t. As it turned out, they did. People who meditated regularly used the “present moment network” in their brains when feeling sad. Meaning, they could experience the feeling of sadness, without becoming caught up in it or making it worse with worrying thoughts. The non-meditators used the “evaluation” network of the brain. Meaning, they got caught up in thoughts about sadness, such as “why do I feel this way?”, “how can I stop this?” “there’s something wrong”. Here’s a picture of their brains:
The study by Dr. Farb can probably explain some of the reasons why mindfulness meditation can decrease depressive symptoms and work as relapse prevention for depression. If you’re searching for holistic way to treat depression without medication regular meditation practice is definitely recommended.
Watch: How mindfulness meditation can be antidepressant
How much meditation is enough to decrease depressive symptoms?
The best answer available is: we don’t really know yet. More research is needed to determine what exact dose of mindfulness meditation will most effectively reduce depression. But for now, the consensus is about 10-30 minutes a day. That’s a good start.
Don’t know how to begin meditation practice?
Don’t worry. There’s an app for that. Our psychologist -developed, science-based depression app shows you how to make regular meditation a part of your drug-free treatment. You can download whenever you’re ready (it’s 100% free, forever) and get started on your journey to a calmer, quieter mind.
Related: How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps and Top 3 beginner meditations for depression.
4. Sleep helps naturally treat depression without medication
Better sleep brings better mood
It’s true. Another thing that can decrease depressive symptoms and serve as regular maintenance for your mood is sleeping. And, there are many things you can do at home to create healthy sleeping habits for free. According to the latest sleep research, sleep can act as a form of overnight therapy, making us better at handling strong emotions.
How can sleeping better help you treat depression?
Well, 90% of depressed people struggle with sleep. As you may have noticed, some people with depression sleep too much and others don’t get enough sleep. Also, sleeping poorly can increase the risk of severe depression and mild depression. For instance, have you noticed that poor sleep can make you tired and lower your mood? It can also be difficult to concentrate after a bad night’s sleep. Those are symptoms of depression. The good news is that changes in one will affect the other. Sleeping better will help you concentrate and regulate emotions. Best of all, this way of treating depression is comfortable, for free and you don’t need pills to do it.
The number one tool for better sleep
Whatever your sleep pattern looks like, there are some excellent tools to help you improve it. As a natural consequence, your depressive symptoms will decrease. Sleeping is one of the best medication-free depression treatments we have, and the tools are the same, regardless if you’re sleeping too much or too little. There is a number one tool for improved sleep, recommended by Dr. Matthew Walker (Professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley):
- Wake up at the same time every day and establish a bedtime ⏰
So, the best thing to do to improve your sleep is to decide to wake up at the same time every day and to go to bed at the same time every night, even during weekends. Use 90 minutes to unwind before bedtime and set an alarm for when your unwinding-time begins. There’s no use going to bed when you don’t feel tired. Also, if you find yourself lying awake unable to sleep, get out of bed after 20 minutes and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again. Then, return to bed. If you lie awake in bed for too long, your brain will start to associate the bed with wakefulness.
If you don’t like this sleep tool, or think it’s too challenging to start with, check out these strategies for improving sleep and reducing depressive symptoms:
- Find 8 hours of sleep “opportunity” every night 😴
- Have around 18 degrees in the bedroom 🌡
- Take a hot bath/shower before bed 🛀
- Use mood lights at night🕯
- Install software that decreases the blue LED light on screens 💻
- No screens 2 hours before bedtime📱
- Have a really dark bedroom (or use a sleeping mask) 🌚
- No caffeine after 12.00 ☕️
- Unwind 90 minutes before bedtime🧘
If you need more information about these sleep tools before starting making changes, download our free therapy app. It includes a complete sleep module with both theory and homework for beginners.
5. Treat depression with brain stimulation
A safe and effective way to treat depression without medication–from home
Our fifth medication-free depression treatment is a brain stimulation technique called transcranial direct current stimulation. Brain stimulation has been used to treat depression for decades, yet still, relatively few people know about this effective option.
First of all tDCS is a form of non-invasive neurmodulation that is very different from electric shock therapy (the current is 400 times weaker!). It works by applying a low energy direct current waveform to a targeted region of the brain. This low energy current does not cause neurons to fire but rather affects the plasticity of the brain, manipulating the likelihood of neurons to fire. Used in clinics to effectively treat depression, and now with Flow we have developed a wireless headset that delivers this gentle electrical stimulation for you to use at home to treat depressive symptoms. In the flow treatment, the electrodes are placed high up on the scalp to target the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Lowered activity in this brain area is associated with depressive symptoms such as fatigue, sleeping problems, concentration difficulties and changes in appetite. The electrical current in tDCS stimulates brain activity in the DLPFC and thereby alleviates the depressive symptoms.
This is the first portable tDCS device approved for medical use in the UK and EU (Read more about The Flow headset and safety) and it’s available to buy or rent online.
Flow’s innovation means that you can combine making lifestyle changes with an evidence based treatment and escape the side effects, from weight gain to sleeping problems, that usually comes with antidepressant medication. Here are some more of the benefits:
- A combined treatment that delivers tDCS brain stimulation via a portable headset and behavior therapy via the app
- Flow is medically approved for the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder, certified as a class IIa device.
- It is readily accessible across EU, UK, Brazil and Hong Kong
- It’s a validated way to treat depression without medication, meaning fewer and less severe side effects than antidepressants.
- 30% of users completely overcome depression with the technique used in the Flow headset.
- 81% notice that at least half of their depressive symptoms disappear within 3 weeks (Read more about The Science behind the Flow depression treatment).
- You can recover from depression in the comfort of your own home
- The Flow headset works with our therapy-app which coaches you to consolidate your tDCS gains with life-style and behavioral changes.
As you can see, there are several drug-free alternative ways of getting out of depression, and no one way is guaranteed to work the same for everyone. But what of the standard treatments?
Standard depression plans and treatments
Well, standard treatment plans for depression depend on the severity and pattern of depression cycles. The first step in getting standard treatment is usually a mental examination by a doctor to assess the severity and the subtype of your depression. Basic investigations like blood sugar tests, lipid levels, and hemograms will also be conducted. Once all this information is medically reviewed, a comprehensive treatment plan is formed.
Very often, psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral activation, and interpersonal psychotherapy will be a primary part of the treatment plan. In many cases antidepressant medications are also prescribed. These medications are designed to treat depression by changing the flow of brain chemicals. Some of the common meds include
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
- Atypical antidepressants
- Tricyclic antidepressants
Although antidepressants can be effective, these medications can also have adverse side effects. While symptoms such as nausea, weight gain, or sleep problems are common in the early stages, for many people these resolve within a few weeks. However, in some cases, antidepressants cause long-term side effects.
Nav Kapur, professor of psychiatry and population health at the University of Manchester and chair of NICE guideline committee explains: “practitioners should offer people a choice of evidence-based treatments and understanding that not every treatment will suit every person. We now need stakeholders’ help to make the recommendations as good as they can possibly be.”
Is there a single most common cause of depression? It’s complicated
It is impossible to attribute a mental health crisis like depression to any single cause. Whilst popular culture might blame negative thinking or early trauma, the reality is much more complicated. According to the WHO, depression is brought about by a “complex interaction of social, psychological, and biological factors”.
Here are some of the main, multivariate causes of depression
- Depression is often linked to family history. Even though specific genetic connections have not been discovered, people with family members affected by depression are more likely to have it.
- A lived experience of physical or mental abuse, grief, or other traumatic events can trigger depressive episodes.
- Chronic health issues and debilitating physical injuries can lead to depression. This is why mental health professionals often connect depression treatment with the overall medical treatment of a patient.
- Medications, along with dependency on drugs and alcohol are a major cause of depression. A patient may feel depressed after starting a new medication. The abuse of recreational drugs and alcohol can also worsen the symptoms of depression.
- Some individuals have personalities that make them more susceptible to psychological stress and negative thoughts. Individuals with low self-esteem and perfectionists will also be more affected by depression.
- Other than the above factors, increasingly common life events like isolation, loss of a job, a breakup or divorce, bereavement are some of the very contemporary causes of depression.
Lets learn as a society to better treat anxiety and depression without medication
Perhaps depression is inherent to the human condition. That doesn’t mean we can’t heal or that healing always requires drugs. From diet to exercise to meditation there are natural interventions that can help treat depression without medication or antidepressants.
At Flow we believe the best way to fight depression is a combination approach. If you are finding it difficult to know where to start, why not try out a few of the approaches listed here and see what works for you. Committing to a few habits can help you discover what approaches, whether it is tDCS, or medication, or perhaps both, will help reduce your depressive symptoms.
Remember there is no single best and fail safe treatment for depression. What works for you will be individual to your experience and the unique balance of chemicals in your brain. We are rooting for you.
Before you go, don’t forget to check out our free depression app.