Rediscovering Happiness
by Deborahann Smith

Mild to moderate depression affects everyone at some point during their lives. Fortunately, herbal remedies, lifestyle changes and psychotherapy are available to help you navigate through difficult times and rediscover what it means to be happy.

The last time I heard the Dalai Lama speak, he said, "The purpose of life is to be happy." After feeling deep appreciation for this revelation, I thought of several people I know who aren't happy — not to mention brief periods of my own life when I've felt depressed — and I subsequently found myself making a checklist of ways to reinstate happiness in our lives.

Depression affects more than 17 million Americans, including children and elders, with women twice as likely to be affected as men. Several biochemical factors influence depression, such as genetics, hormone imbalances, and decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Stressful life events involving job loss, divorce or the death of someone close to you are major contributors to a depressive state. Depression can also be symptomatic of many illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, thyroid imbalance and autoimmune diseases.

Alexander Thomas, M.F.T., a therapist based in San Francisco, describes depression as the absence of vitality. "Vitality is derived from feeling energetic and feeling your life has meaning. When you have vitality, you feel basically happy," he says. "But when vitality is missing, depression has a chance to set in."

Hopefully, your vitality is intact and you feel positive about your life. If not, several natural therapies may help.

Diet and Exercise, Of Course
Oh, yawn, surely we've heard this enough? Sorry, to date we don't have breakthrough news about a shortcut to health that doesn't involve diet and exercise. Rather, it remains that both likely affect your mental state. In fact, since vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause depression, nutritional therapy may be your first line of defense when low moods hit. Studies report that having an adequate intake of magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamins B6 and B12, folic acid and vitamin C can go a long way toward reducing depression symptoms. You might also add salmon, or supplemental flaxseed or hemp oil — all rich in omega-3 fatty acids — to your diet, as omega-3s have been found to alleviate depression by triggering serotonin in the brain.

Exercise is another depression-buster. One study recently concluded that regular exercise, including running, walking and strength training, may be effective in treating depression (Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, June 1999). Besides getting your mind off negative thoughts and rechanneling excess mental energy through the body, exercise releases chemicals called endorphins — sometimes called "feel-good" chemicals — which raise serotonin levels and thus enhance self-esteem.

Two Important Herbs
Depression sufferers may find relief in the herb St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum), touted most recently as the quintessential antidepressant herb, and for good reason. Twenty-three European studies showed that 50 to 80 percent of mildly depressed patients experienced a decrease in their symptoms as well as a higher sense of well-being when they used St. John's wort (British Medical Journal, 1996, vol. 313, no. 7052).

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has recently been in the spotlight due to its antidepressive effects. The leaf of the oldest living tree on Earth (first appearing about 300 million years ago), ginkgo has been found to be useful for treating depression in elderly patients who don't respond to standard antidepressant drugs or St. John's wort (Archives of General Psychiatry, 1994, vol. 51). Scandinavian studies also show ginkgo as promising for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — depression that affects some people during the darker fall and winter months.

The Spiritual Element
Carlos Warter, M.D., Ph.D., a physician and psychiatrist for 25 years, has worked with hundreds of depressed clients using both conventional and alternative treatment modalities, and finds the spiritual element to be an important component of treatment. "While every treatment modality can work to some extent, to be truly effective one must... also cross into the realm of the spiritual to create a comprehensive approach to healing," he writes in Natural Healing for Depression (Perigree), edited by James Strohecker and Nancy Shaw Strohecker.

How can you use the spiritual element to heal and find fulfillment in your daily life? You can appreciate simple day-to-day events: a child's laughter, a beautiful song, a full moon. You can connect with family, friends and community, making an effort to be kind and compassionate toward yourself and others every day. You can also tap into a higher power and recognize yourself as an integral part of the whole universe — what Warter describes as "moving from the small, contracted story where depression brews to the awareness of a larger dimension of one's being, the large or big story of human life."

Everyone experiences the blues once in a while. However, chronic depression can lead to other serious health problems such as asthma, cancer, diabetes or heart disease. If depression lasts more than two weeks — and is accompanied by symptoms such as loss of interest in normal activities, change in appetite, change in sleep patterns, difficulty in concentration, or suicidal thoughts — Thomas and other experts recommend seeking professional advice. "Seeing a therapist or spiritual counselor can give you a different perspective, plus support, and help you unmuddle the million and one thoughts and feelings racing through your head," Thomas says. "Counseling can go a long way toward offering both leverage and empowerment."

Delicious! editor Deborahann Smith is the author of several books, including Work With What You Have: Ways to Creative & Meaningful Livelihood (Shambhala).

If you're looking for more information on depression, or are considering consulting a therapist, here are some places to begin:

Depression Center

Online resource for alternative therapies for treating depression.

Online Psych
Includes articles on anxiety, depression, grief, stress disorders and other emotional health issues. Also offers therapist referrals.