When I was 21 years old, my mom had a manic episode. It was late at night and my two brothers and I had to chase her through the New York City subway from Manhattan to Queens. She continued to try to run away from us but my brother eventually held her in a human straight jacket and we put her in the back of a cop car. She was taken to a city mental health facility.
That night was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted three-and-a-half years. During that time, my mom was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder and was so drugged up on antipsychotics and antidepressants that she became more like a zombie; drooling, shaking, having trouble speaking, sleeping and digesting. The side effects of these powerful drugs led to more drugs, with more side effects. The root cause was never addressed. Finally, she took her life a few days before Christmas when I was 25.
I never thought I would end up talking about mental illness for a living. But I believe that things happen for a reason.
What I learned from her mental illness battle and her death was how incredibly important it is to be in the hands of doctors and practitioners who want to get to the root cause, who want to work with you to fully heal your body. What a lot of people don’t realize is that it is possible to heal chronic health issues—but it takes work. And importantly, you deserve providers who want to support you in your quest to restore your body to health, and do the hard work with you.
Now, my primary doctor is a holistic nutritionist and nurse practitioner who does blood work routinely to understand what viruses, parasites, bacteria, fungus, or heavy metals might be impacting my gut health (and therefore my entire immune system). She also looks for micronutrient deficiencies, so she can tell me which supplements and herbs are important to take, and what to add or remove from my diet. Knowing how connected the gut and the brain are, I try my hardest to constantly improve my gut health to prevent any future mental illness from forming.
Natural vs. Chemical Therapies
Let’s begin by acknowledging that natural therapies—diet change, acupuncture, herbs, supplements, chiropractic care, meditation, and other therapies that exist in nature, like hyperbaric oxygen—are often less “powerful” in a fast-acting way vs. a drug. Not every natural therapy will work for every person, and in some situations it definitely makes sense to temporarily use a chemical drug, or go the surgery route. But for most chronic health issues, pursuing the root cause and then enabling the body to heal itself with the right inputs and taking out the wrong inputs is the best to way in my opinion to fully restore your health.
I believe strongly that with acute health issues, drugs and surgeries are a lifesaver we should be grateful to have. But the issue with a cutting or chemical-first approach to solving chronic health issues is that they may only temporarily relieve the symptom. Without understanding why it happened in the first place, the original problem persists, and often gets worse. Chemicals can also introduce harmful side effects, which are less common with natural therapies. In the case of my mom, her one issue then became several as she began the psychiatric drug regimen.
As an example, let’s look at depression. According to the National Network of Depression Centers, over 16 million Americans had a depressive episode in the past year.
Depression is a symptom not a life sentence.
Depression is one of your body’s many ways of asking you for help. Honor your body by paying attention to these symptoms and troubleshoot why it might be happening. Here are four evidence-backed ways to naturally treat depression symptoms.
Sleep. There is a definite link between lack of sleep and depression. Even if you’re sleeping “enough”, you may not be getting good quality sleep due to temperature, sleep apnea, alcohol-consumption, blue light exposure or excessive stress. Improving sleep quality and getting 7–9 hours a night is a great first step in trying to reduce depression symptoms.
Move more. A sedentary lifestyle is common today but is a very unnatural state for humans. Think back to just two hundred years ago before cars, computers, dishwashers and vacuums, people moved all day cooking, cleaning, carrying children, building, doing manual labor, getting from place to place. A meta-analysis of studies showed even moderate levels of physical activity—like walking for 20–30 minutes a day—can ward off depression in people of all ages. So get in a few days of 10,000 steps or more (you can probably track steps with your phone) and notice any changes in your depression symptoms. For treating rather than preventing depression, a different Harvard Health article explained that “exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression.” Other forms of movement like yoga have also been proven to improve depression. A Time magazine article reported on the results of a study showing that participants who took a yoga class even twice a week reduced depression symptoms by as much as 50 percent.
Meditate. I’m sure you’ve heard about the power of meditation by now. It seems like it’s exploding in popularity, but really it’s been around for thousands of years. Meditation has numerous different benefits including changing certain brain regions that are specifically linked with depression. I know how hard it seems to stop everything and focus on your breath in today’s busy world (I know I find it difficult!) but I also know that some meditation is always better than no meditation, so whether it’s a few minutes of deep breathing when you notice you’re feeling depressed, or developing a more consistent practice using an app like Headspace, Calm or taking a training course, just meditate as often as you can and pay attention to how you feel after a few weeks.
Healthy Fat. A lack of healthy fat or good cholesterol in your diet was tied to depression in a study published in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. When I interviewed Dr. Ellen Vora, MD for WellBe, she said that she keeps a jar of almond butter in her office for when she sees patients, as it’s the fastest brain medicine there is. Things like wild salmon, nuts, avocados, pasture-raised eggs and olive oil are all considered healthy fat, so try to eat some of these foods every day, and especially if you feel any depression symptoms coming on.
It seems hard to believe when you’re feeling pretty crummy that some almond butter and a walk are going to help your depression symptoms, but it should also be empowering to know that you have the power to return to a depression symptom-free life. You just need the right team and the right tools. I often think about my mom and some of her other health issues that weren’t addressed when she was diagnosed with her mental illness. Had a doctor reversed her gut issues and used some of the above therapies in her treatment, there may have been a very different outcome.
Adrienne Nolan-Smith is a board certified patient advocate, speaker and the founder of WellBe, a media company and lifestyle brand focused on bridging the large gap between the healthcare system and the wellness movement to help people prevent and reverse chronic health issues naturally. She received her BA from Johns Hopkins University and her MBA from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. She lives with her husband in New York City. You can follow her for daily inspiration and information @getwellbe