A couple of years ago, integrative medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, MD, noticed that depression was consistently the top search term on his website. This bit of digital insight struck a chord with Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and director of integrative health at Miraval Arizona resort and spa. After all, he had struggled with mild to moderate depression until his mid-50s. Motivated to share what he’d found most effective in lifting his own depression, he wrote Spontaneous Happiness (Little, Brown and Company, 2011), a practical and inspiring guide to nurturing emotional health from within.

Here, he answers Delicious Living’s questions about nutrition, exercise, and mind-body techniques that support contentment. You may find these suggestions especially helpful during darker winter months and the busy holiday season, which can bring on or exacerbate depression symptoms.

Defining depression

Mild to moderate depression carries symptoms similar to (but milder than) those of major depression, including at least two of the following: poor appetite or overeating, insomnia or sleeping too much, fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

Q. Are more people depressed now, or are more just searching for alternatives to conventional treatments for depression?

A. Although depression occurs everywhere, nowhere does it affect as many people as in affluent, technologically advanced countries. People’s lives used to be hard, but they were generally content. Now, in the developed world, life is relatively easy, but we are often depressed.

We eat manufactured food, are largely sedentary, rarely venture outdoors, and stagger under an overload of information, stimulation, and noise. We are also more isolated than ever before, even though contact is now just a mouse click away. The social isolation associated with modern-day living is both a central symptom of depression and a factor that contributes to its development; social isolation squelches spontaneous happiness.

Q. What other factors contribute to common depression?

A. Prescription medication use is on the rise, and drugs such as sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, pain relievers, and steroids can worsen moods. But I believe there is a darker association between pharmaceuticals and depression. I feel strongly that the medical-industrial complex contributes significantly to the depression epidemic. We have been led to believe that ordinary emotional states, such as sadness or anxiety of any duration, are caused by biochemical abnormalities that require treatment.

Consider instead that it may be normal, healthy, and even productive to experience mild to moderate depression from time to time as part of the human emotional spectrum, and that drug therapy might only be indicated when we get stuck in a particular mode for a prolonged period of time or suffer from major depression. The pharmaceutical industry’s pervasive marketing has created the perception among doctors and patients alike that relief from any mood disturbance comes primarily in the form of a pill.

Q. What are your thoughts, pro and con, on antidepressant drugs?

A. The majority of conventional medical doctors believe that all emotional problems stem from brain-chemistry imbalances, thus their total commitment to drug therapy. Chemical deficiencies or an excess of neurotransmitters such as serotonin likely cause some cases of depression, but it makes equal sense to suggest that mood disorders actually trigger disordered brain biochemistry.

In my view, prescribing antidepressant drugs is too often a quick and easy substitute for developing treatment plans that address the totality of health concerns and lifestyle factors that impact health, including emotional wellness. A depression diagnosis has become a common way to explain and manage the complaints of those with vague or confounding symptoms.

Although many treatment options exist for mild to moderate depression, people with major depressive disorders often benefit from conventional medical therapy. A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that prescription antidepressants typically offer little relief for patients with mild or moderate depression, but may significantly help those experiencing severe depression.

Q. Which actions most effectively lifted your own mild depression?

A. A significant emotional shift in my life occurred when I learned to reinterpret rejections and criticism of my creative work as simple annoyances that should have no impact on my self-esteem. I began to consider negative reviews in a dispassionate way to see if anything useful could be gleaned from the comments.

I also used to withdraw when depressed, thinking that my moods were to be endured alone and not inflicted on others. That way of thinking increased my tendency to be antisocial and isolated, and it increased depressive rumination.

Now I value my occasional periods of depressed mood as sources of intuitive knowledge and inspiration, even creative energy. I do not look forward to these times, of course; I simply accept them in a more positive light. I also remain socially active when depressed, because my sense of contentment and balance return more quickly when I interact with my family and friends.

Q. For most people, healthy nutritional and lifestyle changes can be a great start. Which steps do you recommend most?

A. The two antidepression body interventions I prescribe most often are regular physical activity and supplemental fish oil.

Research asserts that moderate exercise, such as a brisk 30-minute walk each day, can prevent depression and treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. People who are fit and exercise regularly have less inflammation, and inflammation appears to play a significant role in depression. People who walk outdoors get the added benefit of connecting with nature.

Most of us do not get enough omega-3 fats; both EPA and DHA reduce inflammation, may protect brain cells from injury, and improve communications between these cells. Adequate omega-3 intake from diet and supplements can move your emotional set point away from sadness and toward contentment. 

Regularly practice healthy stress-management techniques such as breath work, laughter, and meditation; get at least seven hours of sleep each night; and maintain a strong community of family and friends. 

6 natural tips to quickly reduce depression

  1. Practice slowing your breath twice daily, morning and night. Exhale fully through your mouth, inhale deeply through your nose to a count of 4, hold for 7, and then exhale through your mouth for 8.
  2. Make a list of friends who have good physical activity habits. Schedule a walk with one of them.
  3. Bring fresh flowers into your home and enjoy their beauty.
  4. Spend some time in nature, doing nothing but letting the sights, sounds, and scents fill you. Walk in a garden, watch a sunset, or view the night sky.
  5. Be sure to get out in bright light as many days as you can.
  6. Aim to limit the time you spend on the phone and Internet by 25 percent. For instance, resolve not to check email after a certain hour of the day.