A quarter if us will experience a mental health issue each year and 3.3 out of 100 are living with depression at any one time. The culture of suffering in silence is, thankfully, slowly starting to change, but what are the steps we can take to help to prevent depression developing in the first place? It turns out that science has found ways that we can make everyday life a happier place to live in...
7am: Wake Up With A Walk
The human stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated in the mornings, which makes first thing an ideal time for some daily exercise. Unfortunately, our sedentary lives often feature the kind of start to the day where we’re stressed out but sat down – in the car, on a train, in an office – leading us to reach for caffeine to give us a boost. But if you make a 20-minute walk the first thing you do in your day then you can cut your risk of developing depression by one third, according to a major 2018 review by King’s College London, which looked at studies on 266,000 people.
9:30am: Use Caffeine Tactically
If you’ve managed to get an active start to your day then the exercise and cortisol combo hopefully meant you didn’t need to reach for the coffee pot first-thing. This is the time to take back control of your routine from caffeine and use it tactically. Authors of new book Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (which RSNG reviews here recommend delaying your caffeine hit until after you have woken up fully, and caffeinating before you crash in order to stay focussed and find satisfaction in achieving daily goals, without fighting through a de-motivating, anxiety-inducing brain fog. Due to its long half life of 5-7 hours, you should have a ‘last call’ for caffeine at a set time each day (mid-afternoon at the latest, maybe earlier because there’s a gene for caffeine sensitivity). Otherwise it will torpedo your depression-fighting REM sleep (more on that later.)
‘The World Health Organisation says cannabidiol has benefits for depression and anxiety’
Lunchtime: Swerve The Gluten
A brand new study has shown that even if you’re not one of the 1% of people who are coeliacs, you may still suffer from symptoms of depression and fatigue after eating gluten. Jessica Biesiekierski at La Trobe University in Australia did a blind test on 14 people (from the 12% of us who self-report gut issues, tiredness and depression from eating gluten) using yoghurts and muffins with and without gluten. The results showed that even though the gluten-free and with-gluten groups reported the same levels of gut upsets, the gluten-eating group reported feeling tired and having fewer positive emotions.
This study isn’t alone – in 2015 a study at University of Pavia in Italy found that gluten caused more depression and brain fogginess than an inactive substance in 59 gluten-sensitive individuals. So, ditch the sandwich and go for a bean salad instead – you’ll probably be getting a healthier option by default too…
3pm: Reach For CBD Water
When you hear that Coca Cola is looking at the cannabis market with a ‘wellness beverage’ then you know that people are starting to take the possible health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) seriously. The World Health Organisation’s 2017 report on this product, which is taken from low-level THC cannabis sativa hemp, states that has benefits for range of health issues including depression and anxiety. Companies in the US and UK already produce CBD-infused drinking water, so it’s probably worth a try but make sure you buy a certified product because there’s a lot of fake CBD floating around on e-commerce sites.
5pm: Stroke A Dog
Science has uncovered another reason why dogs are man’s best friend – a study in the Journal Of Behavioural Medicine showed that blood pressure in people was lower when petting a dog; more so than when talking to the dog and even more so than when talking to another human. ‘Touch appeared to be a major component of the effect,’ it said. And high blood pressure is linked to stress and anxiety, causing headaches and eventually leading to heart problems and strokes. If dogs aren’t your thing then cats, rabbits or even cuddly lizards are strokable.
‘Meditation helps to break the connection between the brain’s ‘me centre’ and its ‘fear centre’
8pm: Do A Five-Minute Meditation
Once dinner is done, use the time you normally spend sitting around digesting your meal for a short daily meditation. The thing about meditation is that it’s not a cure for anxiety or stress, but science says that it can alter your emotional reaction to those feelings. Depression is linked to activity in two brain areas: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) AKA the ‘me centre’ where you process stuff about yourself, and the amygdala or ‘fear centre’ which releases the stress hormone cortisol.
Research has found that meditation helps to break the connection between the ‘me centre’ and the ‘fear centre’ of the brain, making you less likely to get worked up about stress and anxiety, and then trigger your fight or flight response to a danger that’s only in your head. Once you’ve got your head around meditation (many smartphone apps have timed, guided meditations) you may want to extend the duration because one study found that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day over eight weeks increased the amount of grey matter in their hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory.
9:30pm: Dim The Lights And Open A Window
In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker reveals how REM sleep can guard against depression and process waking-hours trauma, with emotional regions of the brain up to 30% more active during REM sleep than when awake! But you have to give yourself the opportunity to experience REM, which means a 7-9 hour window of time spent in bed.
The problem is that we’re often going to bed feeling wide awake, due to the effect of artificial light, and blue LEDs in particular, which suppresses the evening release of melatonin and eats into the sleep window. ‘The degree to which evening electric light winds back your internal twenty-four clock is important: usually two to three hours each evening.’ That will put you in an entirely different time zone!
So, avoid staring at screens into the evening, turn your living room lights right down and open a window to let the temperature drop because to successfully initiate sleep you core temperature needs to fall by 1°C, or 2-3°F. If you read at bedtime, then old-school paper wins the night, says Walker: ‘Compared to a printed book, reading on an iPad suppressed melatonin release by over 50% at night.’
WHAT NEXT? Sign up for ten days of free guided meditations from Headspace – we like them because they start at five minutes. are straightforward, can be customised to your goals and time preferences, and lack daft backing tracks of wonky music, which are usually just an unwanted distraction.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow the author @mattfitnessray