In a large-scale survey called The National College Health Survey, year after year, roughly 45% of college students report being depressed to the point that it’s difficult to function and 80% say they’re overwhelmed.

Depression does not discriminate between the young and the old. In the 1960s the average age for the onset of depression was 29. Today the average age for the onset of depression is 14.

Depression is a problem that needs to be solved. Luckily there’s more and more research to suggest that it can be, and without the use of psychiatric medication.

Below I’ve listed the top five ways to prevent depression naturally according to scientific research.

1. Sleep

Losing out on sleep can lead to a downward spiral of depression. According to the National Sleep Foundation:

The relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex–depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders.”

When you lose out on sleep, you become more depressed and when you become more depressed, your sleep can be disrupted. It’s a vicious cycle that can culminate gradually over weeks and months.

The correct amount of sleep a person requires varies depending on lifestyle and age, but a general rule of thumb is to aim for 7 to 8 hours every night. If you don’t manage to get this amount of sleep, make sure to sleep longer the next day. Always pay your sleep debts.

2. Exercise

Over the last few decades there has been an explosion of research in the area of physical exercise and well-being.  Psychologists are realising how important it is to think about the body when trying to prevent depression.

Michael Babyak and his colleagues at Duke Medical School conducted a study on the effectiveness of exercise as an intervention for depression.

He took a group of 156 patients with major depression. Many had insomnia, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. He randomly divided them into three groups and administered the following treatments:

  1. First group: 30 minutes of low intensity exercise three times per week.
  2. Second group: standard psychiatric medication.
  3. Third group: both exercise and medication.

The results of this experiment were shocking in two ways. After four months of treatment, 60% of the patients showed improvement. However, there were no significant differences in the recovery rates between the groups. Exercise worked just as well as medication.

If that wasn’t enough, another six months after the study Babyak did a follow-up to see the relapse rates. Out of the 60% of recovered patients, this is what they found:

  1. 38% of the medication only group relapsed.
  2. 31% of the medication and exercise group relapsed.
  3. Only 9% of the exercise only group relapsed back into depression.

Not only did exercise work as well as medication, it worked for longer. There are thousands of studies showing the effects of exercise to be extremely beneficial for our physical and psychological health. It could be the most important, yet undervalued, treatment to prevent depression.

3. Meditation

Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but for most of that time it was practiced mainly by monks in spiritual settings. Over the last few decades, however, scientists have started to discover that meditation is one of the most powerful natural interventions for anxiety and depression.

Thanks to modern technology such as the EEG and MRI scanners, scientists were able to take an in-depth analysis of the brains of people who have been meditating for decades. In one such study, they took the right hand men of the Dalai Lama and examined the ratio of their prefrontal cortex activity.

People who have more activation on the left side of their prefrontal cortex tend to be happier, while those with more activation on their right side tend to be more broody and depressed. If you look at a bell curve, most people fall somewhere in the middle. When they looked at the meditators, they were off the chart.

The monks had an extremely high ratio between their left and right prefrontal cortex. They had extreme susceptibility to positive emotions and extreme resilience in the face of negative emotions.

We don’t need to study for eight hours a day to get the benefits of meditation like the monks. Studies have shown that 15 minutes a day can produce incredible results with just eight weeks of practice. Meditation works.

4. Find your passion

People adapt very quickly to life’s pleasures and pains. If we win a lot of money, we feel a high and then we get used to having lots of money. If we get fired, we feel low and then eventually bounce back.

There are some things, however, that we don’t adapt to: passion. I would wager that the best actors in the world would continue to act even if they became the richest people on Earth. I would also wager that the richest CEOs in the world use only money as a measurement of their success, not as a means to live extravagantly.

You must find your passion. It is a happiness well that never dries out. It could be writing, creating, helping people, self-improvement, sport, or anything that engages you and provides the right amount of challenge and stimulation.

To live with passion, you must first find your passion.

5. Regulate your blood sugar

Can regulating your blood sugar really help to prevent depression?

It might surprise you to know that there have been numerous murderers and thieves exonerated for their crimes because they were suffering from hyperglycaemia, otherwise known as low blood sugar. The body and mind are deeply connected. If one goes wrong, so does the other.

A sugar crash comes after a sugar high. So the best way to avoid low blood sugar is to avoid high blood sugar. Doing this is easy, all you need to do is spread you carbohydrates throughout the day (don’t have loads in one sitting), eat plenty of fiber (at least 12g for every 1,000 calories you consume) and try to get some protein and fat in your diet so that it isn’t predominantly carbs.

If you follow these 5 steps, not only will you be able to prevent depression naturally, you’ll also be even happier than people who aren’t depressed.

Featured photo credit: My body is a cage / My mind holds the key/ Johanna H via flickr.com

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