LIFE IS GETTING BETTER
We live in miraculous times. While we worry about foreign wars, here at home, the rates of crime have been falling for years now. We worry about money. Our economy is not exactly robust but it is growing. We worry about relationships. Divorce seems to be declining – slightly – as people are working harder on their relationships. Life is getting better.
DEPRESSION IS GETTING WORSE
Yet, depression is climbing. Over the past fifty years, the number of people suffering from depression has more than doubled. Other emotional disorders are getting more frequent. In the middle of things getting better, people are more unhappy and stressed. Something has changed.
One thing that has changed over these past fifty years is our lifestyles. We live differently than did our parents and certainly than did our grandparents. Let me mention a few changes.
- We spend less time outdoors. Both children and adults tend to stay indoors for recreation. Computers and television have replaced softball and camping.
- We lean much more on organized events. Children are much less likely to engage in spontaneous, unstructured play. Vacant lots have disappeared and it their place we see cars driving children to sports and music performances.
- We are not a broadly connected. Traditional social clubs are dying out. Church attendance is in decline. Just as many people believe in a higher power, but they seem to avoid the organized worship of our grandparents.
- Exercise seems to be declining. Over fifty years ago, President Kennedy lamented our national lack of fitness and challenged us to hike fifty miles. Many people rose to the challenge. Today, one poll puts the number of people who are physically active at 16%, and that is less than in years past.
- Our food has changed. Large corporations provide snack and convenience foods that are carefully designed to promote overconsumption. Those foods are high in unhealthy fats and low in the kinds of nutrients that give us robust health.
LIFESTYLES CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING
Over the past five years, I have been experimenting with lifestyle changes. What happens when we change some of our habits toward health and vigor? What happens when we consciously change our food habits? What happens when we chose to spend more time outdoors?
The results are exciting. Some of my patients have made complete recovery from depression solely from changing these lifestyle habits.
DEPRESSION: THE OFFICIAL VERSION
There are a couple of official explanations for emotional issues.
One is that emotional disorders are a result of “chemical imbalance.” That explanation came from the drug houses, the pharmaceutical manufacturers who make money hand over fist with antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and pain killers.
Unfortunately, no one has ever shown how any of our chemicals are out of balance. The latest research fails to show any relationship between the body’s chemistry and the suffering that depression and anxiety cause. The “chemical imbalance” theory has no foundation.
Strangely, if you give people drugs they do seem to improve. But when I corner research psychiatrists, they admit that they really don’t know why that is the case, especially when it comes to the antidepressants. We have stumbled on some drugs that may be helpful and we aren’t terribly sure why.
The other explanation is that we talk to ourselves about the world, and that this self-talk changes our emotional state. This one has more to support it. When people change the way they talk, they change the way they feel and behave. The best example of this is called “cognitive-behavioral therapy,” or CBT. It seems to work with a wide range of problems and a wide range of people. The outcomes are good.
I do accept that point of view. Self-talk matters. Yet, when I started to investigate the lifestyle approach to therapy, it struck me that if they worked, the second explanation couldn’t be the whole story. If changing what you eat will bring a significant improvement in emotion and mood, then where was the “change your thinking” component?
If exercise alone would help people recover – and recover very nicely – from depression, where was the change in self talk? It was deeply disturbing.
Yet, I did find just that. Lifestyle changes can hugely improve mental health. Naturally I have been curious to find out how many people can be helped by lifestyle changes. I can now say something about that.
IS THIS A SECRET?
Until recently, you had to be my patient, or a patient of one of my lifestyle focused colleagues, to benefit from these new ways of helping. We have been getting good results, one patient after another, and we discuss our successes, but no one has reached out to the general community.
Now I want to start sharing what I am learning with more people. That is the point if this page, to share with more people.
>>>Let's mention a great fear people have as they grow older: Alzheimer's Disease. The Official Version is that if you are going to develop Alzheimer's, there is really nothing that you can do. The drugs developed so far have been very disappointing.
Not so fast. It turns out that lifestyle changes can make a big difference. A large study, the FINGER study (Finnish Geriatric study) has shown that with a few lifestyle changes, you can actually reverse the early signs. That might mean that we can turn Alzheimer's around, at least if we find it early enough. What lifestyle changes?
If you smoke, stop.
Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Eat a very colorful, "Rainbow" style diet. That means you look at your plate and see lots of colors. But wait! The colors have to be natural. Processed foods don't count as colors. So green, yellow, red, and orange colors on your plate, from things like spinach, red peppers, squash. That is a rainbow diet.
Exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you work at a desk, walk around for five minutes every hour. Take the stairs, not the elevator. Bicycle, run, swim, or lift weights. All of that counts.
Join clubs and socialize more. Reach out to old friends. Make new ones. Do things with your friends.
Continue your learning. Learn magic tricks, a new language, join a book club, or pick up a musical instrument.
You see, along with a rise in emotional distress, we are also seeing a rise in heart disease and strokes, in chronic illnesses, in metabolic disorders . . . there is an epidemic of type II diabetes. That used to be called “adult onset” diabetes but now we are seeing it in children.
We are seeing now some evidence that even Alzheimer’s can be prevented with lifestyle changes. One recent study predicted a 30% reduction in Alzheimer’s simply with lifestyle changes. The FINGER study did even better. So we have reasons to be happy. Changing our lifestyles will improve both mental health and physical health.
So for the sake of your physical health as well as mental health, try out these changes. We want to live the longest and healthiest and happiest life we can.