In many respects, modern Americans should be among the happiest people in the history of the world.
Whether we look at rates of infant mortality, hunger, medical care, life expectancy, or material comforts, Americans are better off (on average) than the vast majority of people who have ever lived. Doesn’t it follow, then, that we should also be among the least likely to get depressed?
Shouldn’t we, at the very least, have lower rates of depression than contemporary hunter-gatherers, whose lives are so much harder than our own? After all, they’re much more likely than we are to experience tragic events like the death of a child, crippling illness, or violent assault—events that can serve as powerful triggers of depression.
Yet even as they suffer these disastrous events, hunter-gatherers rarely become clinically depressed. For some reason, they’re much more resilient than we are. (It’s a good thing, too, because if they weren’t, the human species probably would have become extinct back in the days of our remote ancestors.)
But how are hunter-gatherers able to weather life’s storms so effectively? That’s the question I kept coming back to when I began wrestling with this mystery a few years ago.
What emerged from my quest, after poring over hundreds of published studies in search of clues, was a finding so clear—and so obvious in hindsight—I was amazed no one had ever noticed it: The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is profoundly antidepressant.
As they go about their daily lives, hunter-gatherers naturally wind up doing many things that keep them from getting depressed. They do things that change the brain more powerfully than any medication.
For most of human history, everyone benefited from the antidepressant effect of these ancient lifestyle elements. As a result, people were able to cope with circumstances vastly more difficult than most of us ever face today.
But over the past few hundred years, technological evolution has proceeded at a relentless pace, and many protective features of that ancient way of life have gradually disappeared. Accordingly, the rate of depression has begun to spiral out of control.
6 Key Healthy Hunter-Gatherer Habits
There are six major protective lifestyle elements that we all need to reclaim from our ancestors:
- Dietary omega-3 fatty acids
- Engaging activity
- Physical exercise
- Sunlight exposure
- Social support
These six elements form the core of a breakthrough treatment for depression developed by my clinical research team at the University of Kansas.
It’s a natural approach to healing depression, with no side effects and no insurance forms to file. And in our preliminary clinical trials, it has yielded exceptional results—far superior to those typically observed with medication.
Among our study patients, the rate of favorable response has been over three times higher than that of antidepressant “treatment as usual” in the community. And we’ve yet to see someone put the entire protocol into practice without experiencing significant improvement.
Of These Habits, Eating Omega 3s May Be the Most Effective
Did you know your brain is mostly made up of fat? It sounds like a straight line from a stand-up comedy routine, but it’s true—the human brain is about 60 percent fat by dry weight.
Fat molecules (sometimes called fatty acids) play a crucial role in the construction of brain cells and the insulation of nerve fibers. Fortunately, the body is able to make many of the fat molecules the brain needs.
But there are some forms that the body can’t manufacture on its own; these fats can be obtained only from our diet. And among the most important dietary fats is a group called omega-3 fatty acids—critical building blocks for brain structure and function.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found mainly in fish, wild game, nuts, seeds, and leafy vegetables, all things found in abundance in the hunter-gatherer diet. Our distant ancestors ate five to ten times more omega-3 fat than we do. In fact, omega-3s have gradually disappeared from the American diet over the past century.
In the days of our great-grandparents, for example, beef cattle fed on the free range, where they ate grasses and wild plant sources of omega-3. Remarkably, beef used to be good for us. Today’s cattle, in contrast, are mostly grain-fed, and they have little beneficial omega-3 content. The same is true with our grain-fed, farm-raised fish (most of the fish now consumed in America).
Because the brain needs a steady supply of omega-3s to function properly, people who don’t eat enough of these fats are at increased risk for many forms of mental illness, including depression.
Across the globe, countries with the highest levels of omega-3 consumption typically have the lowest rates of depression.
Clinical researchers have even started using omega-3 supplements to treat depression, and the results so far have been highly encouraging.
For example, British researchers recently studied a group of depressed patients who had failed to recover after taking antidepressant medication for eight weeks. All study patients stayed on their meds as prescribed, but some also took an omega-3 supplement.
About 70 percent of those who received the supplement went on to recover, compared with only 25 percent of patients who kept taking only the medication. This study—along with a handful of others like it—suggests that omega-3s may be among the most effective antidepressant substances ever discovered.
Excerpted from The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen Ilardi. Copyright © 2009 by Da Capo Lifelong Books.