Is there a natural treatment for depression? One that actually works? The Internet certainly seems to think so.
You have no doubt noticed that the web is practically riddled with well-intentioned advice and at-home remedies for how to improve your mental health without pills. But which of these natural cures actually cures?
What natural depression treatments rest calmly on a bed of scientific evidence?
Actually, there are quite a few. And they work very well to combine.
Let’s start with a classic.
1. Psychotherapy as a natural depression treatment
Talk therapy with a licensed psychologist is as effective as antidepressants for treating depression. That means about half of patients who complete a course of psychotherapy fully recover from depression. And of course, you don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable side effects that come with a pill.
Another good thing about talk therapy is that you get to share your story with an empathic person who actually knows what you can do to improve your situation. It’s not just nodding and listening. Talk therapy is all about doing. Making changes. And the skills you learn from your therapist, you’ll be able to use in all sorts of situations for the rest of your life.
Psychotherapy comes in many different forms, for example:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT),
- Short-term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy (STPP),
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- and Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).
So don’t give up if the first method you try isn’t working for you. Maybe another one suits you better. Also, it’s perfectly alright to switch therapists if you don’t feel comfortable with the first one you visit. If you have the option, my suggestion is to visit three psychologists for a first session and choose the one you like the best.
If you don’t want to leave the house and go visit a clinic, search for psychotherapists or psychologists who offer online sessions. My Online Therapy offers face-to-face video sessions with highly qualified psychologists.
2. Physical activity as a natural depression treatment
Regular exercise is another natural depression treatment with results comparable to antidepressant medication, but without the side effects. Instead, moving your body comes with a big bag of pleasant consequences:
- Increased protection against depression, Alzheimers and other diseases
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to manage strong emotions
- Improved concentration
- Improved memory
- Better sleep
- Money left in your wallet (exercise is free)
You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to get out of depression. It’s best to find physical activities that you enjoy and make them a part of your everyday life. 3-4 workouts a week is enough to protect yourself from depression and to recover from it. You don’t have to take a spin class, but it’s important to work up a sweat and get your heart rate up.
The biggest problem with this natural depression treatment is that it can be difficult to find the motivation for it when depressed. It’s almost like a cruel joke that when you’re experiencing the lowest amount of energy, you’re supposed to sweat and pant and jump to get out of it. So, it’s a good idea to learn a few tricks for an easier start. If you want to know more about how to build a treatment routine that lasts, check out All you need to know about exercise and depression.
3. Diet as a natural treatment for depression
A well-nourished body is better at handling stress, recovering from illnesses and difficult life events. The gut microbiome actually communicates with the brain through the gut-brain axis, making diet an effective natural treatment for depression.
World-leading expert on diet and mental health, Professor Felice N Jacka, has studied the effects of the traditional Mediterranean diet on depression. The SMILES trial showed that 30% of depressed participants recovered from depression just by changing their eating habits.
So what should you eat to reduce depression?
The antidepressant diet includes whole grains, fish, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and, of course, the unrivaled cold pressed olive oil.
The best way to start treating depressive symptoms is to add:
- Vegetables (especially green leafs)🥬
- Fruit 🍇
- Nuts (including almonds) 🌰
- Seeds 🌾
You’ll find a lot more information and the full recipe for an antidepressant diet here: An easily digested guide to diet and depression.
4. Mindfulness as a natural treatment for depression
Mindfulness – deliberately focusing your attention on the present moment – can reduce depressive symptoms. This is probably one of the most enjoyable natural depression treatments available.
The easiest way to start practicing mindfulness is to focus on one of your senses, for example smelling, listening or tasting.
You give the smell of freshly cut grass or the sweet taste of a strawberry your full attention for a few minutes. And when your mind starts to wander, you gently bring back your focus to the grass or the strawberry again.
Would you like to try it right away?
Here’s a 10-second mindfulness exercise:
- Deliberately direct your focus to your breathing for 10 seconds.
- Pay attention to the sensations in your body when you breathe in and out.
- Without judging if they’re good or bad, try to describe the sensations to yourself (e.g. you may feel expanding and contracting, chest and stomach moving, your heartbeat, tightness, relaxation…).
So, this was a super quick mindfulness practice. I recommend trying it with food. Experiencing all the flavours in one bite, the consistency and temperature of the food, how the taste differs in different areas of your tongue… The possibilities to bring your mind into the present moment are endless.
If you want to know more about how to use mindfulness as a natural treatment for depression, check out: How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps – Quick guide to medication-free mindfulness treatment.
5. Meditation as a natural treatment for depression
Meditating on a regular basis is an effective way to treat and prevent depression naturally.
Mental health and meditation researcher Dr. Julia Basso and her colleagues found that only 13 minutes of daily meditation for 8 weeks improved people’s mood, attention, memory and ability to regulate emotions (go to article). And a Brazilian study by Dr. Carpena and colleagues showed that only 6 weeks of daily meditation significantly reduced depression and anxiety. The research participants who continued to meditate still reported lower levels of depression and anxiety 6 months after the initial meditation treatment.
So, if you’re looking for an evidence-based and natural treatment for depression, regular meditation is definitely worth trying. You’ll find millions of guided meditations on Youtube and Spotify. All you need to do is to take the time and find a place where you can be undisturbed for 10-20 minutes.
If you don’t know where to start, try the free depression app from Flow Neuroscience, including a meditation module for beginners.
Or, check out this meditation article: Top 3 beginner meditations for depression – A psychologist’s guide on how to use meditation for depression
6. Gardening as a natural treatment for depression
This natural depression treatment will make your hands dirty but your mind shine.
A meta-analysis from 2017, including studies from the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, showed that gardening came with a wide range of health benefits. Digging and planting and watering on a regular basis reduced:
- Mood disturbances
- Body Mass Index (BMI)
- Quality of life
- Sense of community
- Physical activity levels
- Cognitive function
The researchers suggest that government and health organizations should consider gardening as a beneficial health intervention.
And that doesn’t sound so odd, does it? After all, gardening has all of those benefits plus giving you something to care for. Watching living things grow can give us a sense of purpose. Simultaneously, it’s a form of exercise (which is one of the most effective depression treatments available) AND it’s a great way to stay mindful (smelling the plants, touching the soil, listening to the sounds of nature etc…)
Other mental health researchers have found that gardening together with others (community gardening) has more health benefits than gardening alone (go to article).
7. Spending time with animals as a natural depression treatment
Can hanging out with a dog or a horse really reduce depression? Actually, researchers have known for decades that spending time with animals can act as a natural treatment for depression. It works with sheep too. And it helps with anxiety and the negative effects of emotional trauma.
A meta-analysis from 2015, including five research studies, showed that animal-assisted activities (AAA) and animal-assisted therapy (AAT) was associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. Another study found that equine-assisted psychotherapy (therapy with horses) increased confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness in children and adolescents with depression and anxiety.
Though the evidence for this natural depression treatment is not as overwhelmingly strong as for regular exercise, the available research shows great benefits of using the connection between humans and animals to treat depressive symptoms and other mental health disorders.
So, it seems like having a dog can be very beneficial for your mental health. You get regular walks (aka exercise) and a relationship with an animal. Or why not hang out with a horse 3-4 times a week? Riding a horse is great exercise AND intense communication with an animal.
8. Connecting with others as a natural depression treatment
Meeting friends and family, going to parties or other social gatherings and engaging in the community is a big challenge when depressed. But it is important. Very important.
In fact, connecting with others can act as a natural treatment for depression.
Close personal relationships give you a sense of belonging. They can improve your sense of self-worth and offer you emotional support. Additionally, they give you the opportunity to support others, which is also antidepressant.
If you can, try to spend time with your family or a friend every day. It doesn’t have to be a huge arrangement, just try to have a meal together with your family or take a short walk with a friend. Ask them about what’s going on in their lives. Maybe today is a good time to visit that relative or acquaintance who needs company or support?
If you live far away from friends or family, use video calls as often as you can.
For more information about how to treat depression when isolated, check out: How to prevent depression during covid-19 lockdown – Dealing with social isolation and depression
9. Giving to others as a natural depression treatment
Have you noticed that the act of giving is actually rewarding? Showing kindness to others and offering your support can improve your mental health and act as a natural treatment for depression.
Acts of giving will:
- Give you a sense of purpose
- Improve your self-worth
- Create positive feelings (both in your own body and in the person who receives your gift)
- Give you a sense of reward
- Help you connect with other people
This works with small acts of everyday kindness, such as listening to a friend or colleague, or larger ones, such as helping out at a local senior center.
Here are a few things that you can try:
- Offer to help someone move, to water their plants, to fix a problem at their house or with their computer (depending on your skillset).
- Offer to help a colleague with a work project even though it’s not your main responsibility.
- Go visit a relative or acquaintance just because you know they need the company.
- Say thank you to someone for being in your life. Tell them how much you appreciate them.
- Pick a flower and give it to your friend, child or partner.
- Volunteer in your community, for example help out at a local school, hospital or senior center.
10. Sleeping as a natural treatment for depression
Perhaps you’ve noticed that poor sleep can make you tired, lower your mood and make it difficult to concentrate?
Yes, poor quality sleep can increase depressive symptoms and the risk of depression. In turn, depression leads to poor sleep. Actually, 90 % of depressed people struggle with sleep. Some sleep too much (but with low quality) and others don’t get enough.
At the same time, sleep is one of the best natural treatments for depression we have. Just as poor sleep increases depression, good quality sleep reduces it.
According to Professor of neuroscience and psychology Dr. Matthew Walker, sleep can act as a form of overnight therapy, making you better at handling strong emotions and concentrating on important tasks.
There is a number one tool for improved sleep (regardless of whether you sleep too much or too little):
- Wake up at the same time every day and establish a bedtime ⏰
So, the best thing to do to improve your sleep is to decide to wake up at the same time every day and to go to bed at the same time every night, even during weekends.
Here’s another tip:
- Use 90 minutes to unwind before bedtime and set an alarm for when your unwinding-time begins. 🧘♀️ Do something relaxing, such as taking a bath or listening to calming music. And avoid screens. It will help your brain fall asleep faster.
If you don’t like these sleep tools, or think they’re too challenging to start with, you’ll find a lot more in this article: All you need to know about depression and sleep – The most effective sleep strategies for improving depression.
11. Stop smoking as a natural depression treatment
This form of natural depression treatment focuses more on what not to do than what to do. But making a few changes regarding smoking can have a huge impact on your mental health. And on your physical health as well.
According to the NHS, stopping smoking can have the same effect on depressive symptoms as taking antidepressants. So, if you’re a smoker, this is one of the most powerful natural treatments for depression available.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t smoking make you more relaxed?
It’s a common misunderstanding that smoking relieves anxiety and stress. The truth is that the cigarettes most likely caused the stress in the first place.
Addictive substances create withdrawal symptoms, or cravings. When smokers haven’t had a cigarette in a while, they start feeling restless and anxious (aka withdrawal) and they crave another cigarette for relief. When they light up, the craving momentarily disappears. And the smokers associate the cigarette with their improved mood.
Take the cigarette out of the equation and the withdrawal symptoms never show up in the first place.
If this natural treatment for depression applies to you, contact the NHS stop smoking services.
12. Cut down on drinking as a natural depression treatment
As you can imagine, alcohol and depression in combination easily trigger a vicious cycle. Drinking alcohol frequently increases the risk of depression and depression increases the risk of alcohol abuse.
So, what does ‘drinking frequently’ mean? How much alcohol is too much?
Well, according to the NHS, drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week is considered high-risk drinking. Less than 14 units is low-risk (there is no ‘safe’ amount of alcohol).
14 units = 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.
Also, you shouldn’t drink more than 3-4 units on the same day.
So, be careful not to drink too much when going through depression, especially not late at night as it will affect your sleep quality. This video will tell you more about some common sleep villains who disturb your sleep and increase the risk of depression:
If you need help with cutting down on drinking, visit this NHS page: Alcohol Support.
There are many ways to treat depression naturally, without medication. This list summarizes our 12 science-based natural treatments for depression:
- Talk therapy with a licensed psychologist (psychotherapy).
My Online Therapy offers face-to-face video sessions.
- Regular exercise.
Read more here: All you need to know about exercise and depression – building a treatment routine that lasts
- An antidepressant diet.
Get the recipe here: An easily digested guide to diet and depression
Check out: How to use mindfulness for depression in 5 simple steps – Quick guide to medication-free mindfulness treatment
- Regular meditation.
Check out: Top 3 beginner meditations for depression – A psychologist’s guide on how to use meditation for depression
- Gardening (preferably together with other people).
- Spending time with animals.
- Connecting with friends and family.
- Showing kindness and giving to others.
- Getting better sleep quality.
Read about the best sleep tools here: All you need to know about depression and sleep – The most effective sleep strategies for improving depression
- Stop smoking.
Contact the NHS stop smoking services.
- Drink carefully.
Visit the NHS Alcohol Support.
Thank you for your attention!