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8 Treatments That Are Better Than Antidepressants

Before trying medication, consider exercise, check your diet, or opt for light therapy. You'd be surprised at how much they do for clearing up the blues.

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Examine the underlying cause

You may feel like you’re in a funk, but a low mood might actually stem from a physical problem. (Take this test if you think you have depression.) “Unlike other medical diagnoses, depression doesn’t have any objective tests, like a blood test, to identify the underlying reason. Like a fever, it can stem from many different causes,” says Kelly Brogan, MD, Manhattan-based, board-certified psychiatrist and author of A Mind of Your Own. For instance, having a low thyroid (hypothyroidism) can masquerade as depression or even as something as severe as psychosis, says Brogan, adding “in that respect, treating it with antidepressants doesn’t make any sense at all.” Talking to your doctor about a range of symptoms (physical, mental), can help deliver a clearer picture if a physical problem is at the heart of your symptoms and other tests (like a thyroid test) need to be run.

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Check your diet

Riding a blood sugar roller-coaster during the day may be at the root of your up-and-down feelings. “Depression can be a label that you’re assigned when you really have a blood sugar imbalance,” says Brogan. That can happen if you’re eating foods (refined, processed fare, simple sugars) that cause blood sugar to yo-yo. The swing downward activates your fight-or-flight system. Sensitive folks may feel “hangry,” irritable, nauseous, or can’t go long without eating. Check out these seven ways to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. “If you didn’t know this was part of your issue, you may think that you’re foggy, tired, and checked out of life because of depression when it’s your diet,” Brogan explains.

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Try B12

You know it as an energy-revving nutrient, but add mood stabilizer to the list of its powers. “B12 is a critical vitamin for a number of different body functions, including making all of your neurochemicals and regulating inflammation,” says Brogan. Having a B12 deficiency (or even in the low-normal range) may be at the heart of your symptoms—and you may not be depressed at all. Ask your doctor for a test measuring your homocysteine levels, an inflammatory marker that rises when you lack B12, explains Brogan. If you’re running low, an injection or lozenge can replace what you’re lacking. “I’ve had patients tell me they feel like a new person after just one B12 injection,” she says. These are the 11 signs you’re not getting enough B12.

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Get sweaty

Not only does exercise help prevent depression (one 2017 study found that 12 percent of all cases can be prevented by staying active one hour each week), but research shows that it can also be one of many natural antidepressants. In people diagnosed with major depressive disorder who didn’t respond to drug therapy, 30 percent of those who exercised went into remission after 12 weeks compared to a control group, per the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Not only does a sweat session release endorphins, but it’s also a good coping tool to distract you from negative thoughts and boost your interaction with others, points out the Mayo Clinic.

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Bask in bright light

Not getting good sleep, feeling foggy, fatigue, and carb cravings can all be signs of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or winter depression, which comes on as the days grow shorter (and darker). Both antidepressants and light therapy are known to work equally well, according to a 2012 report in the American Family Physician. But if you don’t want to think about surviving antidepressants, a more natural approach may be better for you. Light therapy involves sitting 12 to 18 inches from a white, fluorescent light for 30 minutes per day in the morning. You should expect to start to feel better in a week or two, but need to use the light box throughout the winter.

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Rewire your thoughts

When the winter turns cold and dark, it’s easy to stay inside and avoid social interaction or the things that you once loved to do, something that can make symptoms worse. Enter cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for SAD. (Learn more about this very effective therapy.) These therapy sessions focus on turning around negative thoughts and promoting behaviors that will ultimately improve mood. One study in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2016 found that the six weeks of the treatment helped prevent relapse in future winters, causing the researchers to conclude that CBT-SAD was better than even light therapy. That said, light therapy is easy to implement in your life (buy a light box), so if a CBT-SAD therapist isn’t available in your area, don’t be shy about trying light therapy.

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Review your meds

Many Rx meds deliver unpredictable psychiatric side effects like depression, says Brogan. For instance, she says, acid-blocking meds can deplete vitamin B12 in your body, producing cognitive impairment and depression. Other potential offenders include antibiotics and cholesterol medications. Review your medications with your doctor, and bring up any new depression symptoms that may have coincided with the start of something new you’re taking. (Here’s exactly how you should take prescriptions to avoid common medication mistakes.)

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Relax already

When life is coming at you from all angles, the stress can weigh on you like depression. “We are living today in ways that are out-of-sync with millions of years of gene-based evolution,” says Brogan. That includes a lack of community, increased tech exposure, and changes in light exposure (we’re inside all the time). The ramifications can be depression-like symptoms, and a change is needed in order to feel better, says Brogan. Nutrition and exercise are clearly important, but so is meditation. Aim for just three minutes a day, she recommends, adding “the act of pausing sends a signal to your nervous system that everything is OK and you’re not in an emergency.” Here are 37 more ways to destress.

Jessica Migala
Jessica Migala is a freelance health and fitness writer with more than a decade experience reporting on wellness trends and research. She's contributed to Health, Men's Health, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. Jessica lives with her husband and two young sons in the Chicago suburbs.