7 Alternative Therapies for Depression

Young man sitting looking upsetAs I discussed last month, depression is the yin to anxiety’s yang. Between these two troublemakers, they’ve got dark clouds hanging over both the past and the future, making the present moment complicated at best (and for some people unbearable). Taken as a human composite, it’s an unfortunate trade-off for being cognitively complex. As individuals, however, we naturally just want a solution.

The problem is, there’s just so many confounding factors surrounding depression that it’s hard to know where to start. Your mind is an infinitely complex latticework of moving parts; one which continues to baffle and divide the scientific community. How does a practitioner prescribe suitable treatments for a problem they don’t fully comprehend? And, yet, medical science often (and perhaps inevitably) works with incomplete information. 

The result is a suite of antidepressant drugs that may be effective in treating certain aspects of depression in certain people, but which also present a suite of their own often-debilitating problems. It doesn’t mean these approaches don’t have their value. I recognize that for some, these medications may be live saving or sustaining. For others, they offer support through acute or overwhelming times or, in still other cases, give a leg up while other interventions have the chance to take hold. My purpose here isn’t to suggest people give these drugs and other conventional treatments the boot. I see this post as a dialogue that offers supplementary strategies to augment any assigned treatment. It can hopefully be or contribute to a toolbox that moves beyond the scope of simple self-care into research-supported territory. And while they’re likely more effective for mild to moderate depression, I think it’s fair to say that no one should write off the therapeutic benefits of healthy lifestyle measures for their overall treatment program.

In that spirit, let me offer the genuine caveat: any folks under medical care for any condition (depression or otherwise) should consult their medical professional before making any change in their treatment plan. But you knew that already.


There’s definitely some dead horse flogging here, but if I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: exercise is a must for rebalancing mental health. Last week, I discussed how the “feel good” hormone serotonin, a sworn enemy of depression, can be increased via exercise. This is achieved by motor neurons promoting the synthesis and release of serotonin, and by encouraging production of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin.

All well and good, but which exercise is best for fighting depression? Older thinking has always privileged aerobic exercise when it comes to mental health. This study, for example, notes that “BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) by aerobic exercise appears to ameliorate hippocampal atrophy, improve memory function, and reduce depression.”  

But while a good bout of cardio is certainly beneficial for elevating mood, studies that examine a range of exercise forms suggest that certain types may be better. An experiment that investigated the effects of aerobics, bodybuilding, and circuit training on 45 depressed patients showed that bodybuilding was the clear winner in reducing depressive symptoms. Another study that compared the effects of aerobic and non-aerobic (i.e. resistance training) exercise on depression found that while both forms were beneficial, non-aerobic exercise was superior in all-round mood-lifting effects.

Personally, I’m all about lifting heaving things, but for a broad-spectrum approach check out this post.


Here’s another well-trodden Primal go-to. With ample clinical evidence supporting claims that meditation is a tried-and-true formula for treating depression, few would argue otherwise.

I’d be inclined to say that any meditation form will help in the depression realm, but this time we’re all about facts. And those facts lead us straight to the mindfulness doorstep. Not one to pass on a good thing, I’ve written at length about mindfulness and the way in which it encourages both a healthy mindset and a healthy body.

As this paper puts it, mindfulness is “a practice of learning to focus attention on moment-by-moment experience with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” It’s that conscious and continual awareness of both the pattern and nature of our thoughts that diminishes ruminative thinking, one of the key characteristics within depression.

In the lab, applications of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy have both been put to good effect for decreasing psychological distress and offering both broad spectrum anti-depressive and anti-anxiety effects. Likewise, outside of the clinic, plenty of studies have proven the ability of mindfulness meditation to treat depression, particularly in those with severe emotional difficulties. Another benefit that can’t be dismissed is the fact that mindfulness meditation seems to be longer-lasting than many other antidepressant therapies.

For those interested in instituting a practice, here are a few easy steps for introducing meditation into your life.


It’s an obvious lead from meditation is yoga, which itself can be a form of meditation. While it’s fair to say that there’s a notable lack of large studies examining the link between yoga and depression, existing research is already substantiating favorable anecdotal evidence.

In the first study performed in the U.S. to look at yoga as a standalone treatment for depression (notable that it was published just a few months ago), 20 adults with mild to moderate depression were randomly assigned to 90-minute yoga classes twice a week for 8 weeks. Another 18 adults with mild to moderate depression spent the same amount of time in attention-control educational classes, sans-action. The yoga group showed significantly greater remission of their depressive disorders than the control group.

Other studies have supported the use of yoga as an enhancement to traditional talk therapy and as a pivotal embodiment therapy (PDF) for overcoming trauma and the psychological symptoms (including depression) related to it.


Now we move into murky waters…literally. While it’s fair to say that the use of water treatments for various ailments goes way back, it’s not until recently that using hydrotherapy for treating mental illness has raised a few brows once more. This form of treatment can utilize hydrological variations to produce a range of beneficial effects in the body.

It’s not exactly rocket science, when you think about it. If you’re like me, you love a good plunge in a polar pool. That feeling you get afterwards, once you get over the initial shock, is one of clarity and invigoration. This suggests, then, that bringing our skin into contact with water of varying temperatures can change both our physiology and mood. In the case of cold water immersion, for example, restriction of the surface blood vessels forces blood into the core in an attempt to conserve heat. This sends a jet of oxygen-rich and nutrient-dense red stuff to the brain and vital organs, the beneficial effect of which is almost instantaneous.

But for our humble Primal readers out there, a daily polar plunge might not always be a viable (or desirable) option. Fortunately, preliminary evidence suggests that a simple cold shower may also provide a notable antidepressant effect. While research is only in the preliminary stage, this study suggests that easing your shower temp down to 20°C (68 fahrenheit) and sticking it out for 2-3 minutes is a good starting point. If nothing else, it’ll wake you up.

At the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible that hot water may perform a similar anti-depressive function. The most notable of hydrotherapies in this arena is balneotherapy—the use of hot water baths for healing. A 2010 study that compared 21 days of balneotherapy to standard antidepressant medications found that the former resulted in significantly higher remission of depression and was longer sustained. 

Another study showed that hot mineral water treatments improved serotonin levels and had a positive effect on depression. That being said, with both these articles its hard to say whether it was the mineral component that provided the beneficial effect, or the hot water component. I’m inclined to think both.

Heat Therapy

Whereas hydrotherapy uses combinations of water and temperature variations to treat depression, heat therapy relies solely on, well…heat.

And I’m talking about quite a lot of heat here. A study published last year used a whole-body hyperthermic device to raise the body temp of 338 individuals to 38.5 Celsius (101 Fahrenheit) over the course of 6 weeks. Using a control group who were tricked into thinking they were also experiencing a rise in temp, the researchers were able to confirm that whole-body hyperthermia is a “safe, rapid-acting, antidepressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit.”

Another study published in 2013 used whole-body hyperthermia to produce much the same result. But while it appears that there were statistical errors, there’s enough emerging evidence out there to suggest that this treatment is worth giving a shot. Those of us outside the laboratory might try a traditional or (even better perhaps) an infrared sauna. A hot bath or longer hot shower may also work for this purpose.


Curcumin is known for its anti-inflammatory prowess, meaning its currently a preferential natural treatment for any number of arthritic and autoimmune conditions. But what about mental health?

Current thinking in the scientific community largely posits depression as an affliction of both the central nervous system and systemic inflammation, meaning any reduction in system inflammation via, say, curcumin supplementation, can potentially impact depression. And while initial trials demonstrated no positive correlation between curcumin and depression, those same studies admitted that they needed a longer duration and higher dosages. Later stints that did just that found some promising signs, but once again concluded that they needed still higher dosages and larger cohorts. See a trend emerging here?

Finally, this year, researchers had a breakthrough: significantly greater improvements in depressive symptoms from curcumin supplementation than placebo. Interestingly, however, they didn’t find any difference in effectiveness between low and high curcumin dosages.


Next, while something called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has attained mainstream status for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders, it’s not until recently that this same treatment has been applied to depression. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Brain and Behavior recognized that “trauma and other adverse life experiences can be the basis of depression,” and on this basis sought to determine whether EMDR could be an effective antidepressant.

Sixteen patients with depressive episodes were treated with EMDR therapy by reprocessing memories of stressful life events, while continuing the use of standard antidepressant drugs. The results showed that more than two-thirds of the EMDR patients showed full remission at the end of treatment, which was a significantly greater reduction in depression than a control group that was treated with antidepressants alone. What’s more, one year later the EMDR group reported less depressive symptoms and relapses than the control group.

While more research and larger study groups are needed to clarify the link between EMDR and depression, it’s an area that shows some promise, particularly for trauma-related depression.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have your or anyone you know had success with any of the above therapies, or with something else I haven’t covered today? Share your thoughts below, and have a good end to the week. 

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TAGS:  mental health

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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44 thoughts on “7 Alternative Therapies for Depression”

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  1. Just a reminder – if your healthcare provider doesn’t order a thyroid workup while working on a depression diagnosis you need to insist that happen. Then you need to educate yourself on how to best deal with the low “normal” numbers that won’t raise red flags for a mainstream medical provider.

    Optimizing thyroid function is a tremendously important step to dealing with depression symptoms.

    1. So true! Before my thyroid problem was detected, I was quite depressed, but getting on synthroid fixed it like magic. It’s also important to realize that what appears to be post partum depression can likewise be a thyroid problem, since giving birth can set off a thyroid storm.

      About low “normal” numbers that should be recognized as a problem, if you see an actual endocrinologist rather than a family doctor, they’re usually quite aware of the problem with the accepted normal range.

    2. Or, if your doctor is a dinosaur, you can do it yourself, see Stop the Thyroid Madness website.

  2. Hydrotherapy was commonly used in the 1800s… Vincent Van Gogh’s treatment consisted of two-hour hydrotherapy sessions (ice baths) twice a week. Van Gogh reported feeling happier during the ice baths treatments… turns out that cold exposures may have more history than we initially thought… and for good reason!

    Those of you that know me, know that I’m a huge fan of cold exposures… it reconnects us with adaptive mechanisms that are hard-wired into us. It’s primal, it’s not easy, it’s so incredibly rewarding. Try cold showers for 30 days!!

    I’d also like to add that a nutrient dense, nose-to-tail diet should get an honorable mention. Too many people are missing critical nutrients that play a role in our health and happiness.

    A high quality pasture-raised, grass-fed beef liver is a great starting point. Add in the nourishment from mid-day sun, pasture-raised eggs, fermented veggies (or kim chi), and sea vegetables and you’ve just about addressed the most common nutritional deficiencies that plague most people. Magnesium will always be the exception… it’s virtually impossible to get an adequate supply of magnesium which is why my family and I use a high quality transdermal magnesium oil.

      1. Hard to get more primal than liver.. it’s what all carnivores prioritize tearing into after making the kill. BTW, with a name like Liver King, it should be obvious… it’s my MO.

        1. couldn’t stomach liver except for my own pate, but found i could dehydrate it, powderise and pop into capsules.

  3. Curcumin, is it best to get it from turmeric? Apparently India has low rates of neuro disease and mental health problems….possibly due to daily use of curcumin.

    1. Baz to use it to treat depression you should purchase one of the several products on the market that is formulated to increase the bioavailability of the curcumin. Not that curry / turmeric doesn’t have health benefits, but you cannot eat enough turmeric to obtain the level of curcumin in your bloodstream to be of benefit for depression.

      1. “Turmeric does not have health benefits”….this is not correct. It has plenty on its own though the bioavailability of the curcumin in it is limited unless you combine it with piperine in black pepper which increases bioavailability by about 200%.

        1. It is not correct and it is not what I posted Alex … here is what I posted … “Not that curry / turmeric **doesn’t** have health benefits”

          I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you fired off a reply without properly reading what I posted. Now, to what you are alluding to, even with piperine turmeric does not have nearly the potency of a properly formulated curcumin supplement to be of benefit for depression. I’ve read extensively on the subject.

  4. Living in Alaska, I have experience with the efffects of SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which has elements that are similar to depression. I’ve learned to counter these effects by making many of the lifestyle changes you mentioned above. I meditate, practice yoga and exercise daily. This means getting up early, but now I can’t imagine starting my day without these essential rituals. I also make sure to get outside everyday on my lunch hour, as this is the only time it is light in the winter. We also practice the sauna/cold water immersion cycle as often as possible. Oh, and we escape to the tropics in December, which makes everything better.

    Awesome tips, Mark!

  5. I can honestly say that EMDR therapy changed my life. I’d struggled all my life to deal with childhood issues that I couldn’t seem to get past. I did EMDR for a few months about 3 years ago, and while it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through, it was so worth it. I was able to finally and truly forgive someone who I thought I had forgiven many times before, but I hadn’t because the anger kept coming back. After EMDR, I can think of these upsetting things and I no longer get upset or angry – it’s more of a sense of peace and a completely neutral physical reaction.

    Now, having said that, I exercise daily, walk in the sunshine, use my infrared sauna, do some yoga, and take a curcumin supplement (yes, all these things!!) but I still take 2 antidepressants every day. I feel like all of these healthy habits work WITH my meds to keep me healthy and well. I’ve gone off antidepressants in the past because I felt like a bit of a failure for needing them. Well, let’s just say the results were not good. Not everyone needs meds, but for some of us, they are necessary and life-saving.

  6. Being a long time reader of MDA and an EMDR therapist, I am please to see your mention of EMDR therapy for depression!

  7. While I think all of those suggestions are great ideas I also think one of the key elements that is overlooked in our society is taking a moment to have gratitude. We very much take for granted all of the things we have. Two hundred years ago people would feel happy and grateful just to have all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs met – safety, food, housing, warmth, etc. But now most of us (certainly those of us on MDA) have all those needs and MORE met but we tend to focus on what we don’t have! Taking a daily moment to just be thankful goes a long way in helping one’s mental status.

  8. This is so timely. I quit Cymbalta cold turkey April 8 after taking 120 mg/day for over 10 years. I don’t recommend old turkey, but I’m too far into it now.

    The ‘discontinuation syndrome’ side effects are horrible, but I’m surviving. Depression hits me in waves, but I’m mostly drowning in anxiety. I’m doing several of the above anyway, but I’m somewhat surprised you left out something MDA brought into my life: gut health!

    Getting off of Prevacid (on it for about 10 years, yikes) was made possible through the use of probiotics. I truly believe that eating primally and probiotically, and supplementing with additional happy bugs, that I will pull through this successfully.

    Are you going to discuss anxiety at some point? I’m also using amino acid supplementation (started this week) based on The Mood Cure. I think it’s helping with both D&A.

    One thing I’ve found in “controlling” my anxiety is exercise. ‘Sweating it out’ through cardio and lifting has given me larger chunks of peace, but the impact is not long lasting.

      1. Thanks – I’ve never been able to successfully log in to the forum.

    1. Good for you, getting off Prevacid. Now look into getting back your bone health as well. Life Extension has an excellent K2 supplement that might help.

  9. People with multiple sclerosis should be cautious with heat therapy. It can sometimes trigger relapses.

    1. my brother can’t actually move at all when he gets a fever, nor even tolerate a very warm climate.

  10. No affiliation, but for those interested in this subject, please checkout, kellybroganmd
    Happy reading

    1. Agreed. I bought multiple copies of Kelly Brogan’s latest book after I read it and gave copies to all my relatives!!!

  11. Did not know there were so many ways that could help with depression Best thing i found for treating depression was martial arts it covers alot of the points you mentioned as its good exercise some elements of yoga are there as well and even to a degree meditation and the best part you get to make friends and while you are there you are forgetting your problems

  12. Getting off of gluten and sugar 19+ years ago got rid of my depression almost overnight. Staying off G & S has been a challenge, to say the least. Finding MDA 6+ years ago has helped me to successfully make that commitment. My better mood inspired me to be more open to things like yoga, exercise, sauna, and meditation, and I decided that I wanted to stay on the planet after all. I tried meds but they made me feel loopy and unsafe. I just knew there had to be a better way, if I could only find it, and I did. It’s such a relief to have answers and options. I’m so grateful.

    1. can u tell me what MDA stands for, please? Google has many different suggestions.

      1. Mark’s Daily Apple, this website. And the ideas incorporated in the Primal Blueprint.

  13. I describe my anti-depression/anti-anxiety regimen with the acronym “REDS”. Rest, Exercise, Diet, Sun Exposure – subjects well covered in this blog, with guidance I generally agree with and follow. My experience is such at if any one of these four “legs” are compromised, the table gets wobbly (to torture the metaphor).

    I hope the recommendations in Mark’s post add more support for anyone suffering with depression.

  14. Supplementing with amino acids has done wonders for me, specifically SAM-E.

  15. It might be obvious but avoiding alcohol is a big one. I’m only mentioning this because I know a handfull of daily drinkers that are also on antidepressant medication. For every Happy Hour there is at least one Unhappy Hour.

    1. how does that work with kids? My daughter was diagnosed with depression/anxiety (suicidal) at 14. Obviously a teetotaller at the time.

      1. It can be so hard as parents to believe that young teens would drink or do drugs but there are many kids 12+ who partake. Please don’t assume that her age somehow excludes this behavior.

  16. It’s great to see a thoughtful, respectful article on antidepressants. Mental illness runs in my family (significant history of suicide) and I have been on meds for over 20 years. For me, they keep me alive, but there are definitely other things that help-getting enough sun is one. Planning fun activities each week. Spending time in the park near my house.

    I also have been on thyroxine for an underactive thyroid for 8 years.

    I recently switched meds after 5 years on one and all of a sudden, I don’t fall asleep after meals or need afternoon naps. This has inspired me to join a gym that has exercise that I like and can do (i have nerve damage in my feet so just going for a walk/run is not my best option.

    I’m lucky that i am someone for whom medication works. I work full time as a writer, am married and moved countries a few years ago. I someone wonder what would happen if we were taught about brain chemistry and nutrition from an early age.

  17. I miss my hot baths sooo much (current house has no bath). I use MgCl + milk powder + essential oils and a temp of 43C. A daily essential pre-bedtime ritual….

  18. I can attest to the effectiveness of EMDR. It helped me tremendously get through some issues in my past. The funny thing was that, the thing I thought was depressing me was not thing that the EMDR therapy brought out. I recommend it highly.
    I also have found that exercise is wonderful therapy!

  19. Antidepressants in no way whatsoever actually deal with depression. In fact there are huge sideeffects and crazy withdrawal symptoms that they tell you means ‘you need more’.

    When you take something and the SIDE EFFECT is ‘suicidal idealations’ then that’s pretty suspicious. So the antidepressant causes suicidal thoughts? Hmm.

    It’s good to see you covered some trauma type work like meditation and EMDR. EMDR can be good for some people, but if you have alot of trauma it might be overwhelming.

    I did Brainspotting which is similar. It kind of helped, but when I found Somatic trauma work where I was first able to build a sense of ‘safety’ back into my system and let the trauma come up naturally in it’s own time I found that worked alot better than doing a big session poking at the trauma for the whole time trying to bring up more intensity.

    1. I see someone mentioned Kelly Brogan. Yes her work is awesome to understand the massive negative effects of antidepressants.