The Roots of Depression: How Much Does Modern Culture Have to Do With It?

Inline DepressionI can’t complain about my existence in modern culture. My life is great. I have a loving family. My kids are happy and successful. My wife is a friend and lover and confidante and partner. Business is good and interesting. I care about what I’m doing. Every day is meaningful—and unburdened by concerns around mental well-being. Depression isn’t an issue for me.

But it’s not the case for everyone. The numbers don’t lie. Depression rates are climbing. Antidepressants are among the most common drug prescriptions, even among children. And because it can be embarrassing to admit you’re depressed—like there’s “something wrong” with you if you say as much—many people with depression never seek help, so the real numbers could be even higher. Depression isn’t new of course. The ancients knew it as “melancholia,” or possession by malevolent spirits. But all evidence suggests that depression is more prevalent than ever before.

What’s going on?

First of all, the way we speak about depression makes getting to the root of the issue harder.

“It’s all brain chemicals.”

“You have a neurotransmitter imbalance. There’s nothing you can do but take this pill.”

“You were born with it.”

This is an admirable attempt to de-stigmatize depression, turning it into a medical condition that “just happens” and “isn’t your fault.” Some people get brain tumors, some have type 1 diabetes, some have depression. There’s no shame in getting treatment for legitimate medical condition. This is an important development, but there’s a cost: It removes agency. If depression is just something you get or have from the outset, many (certainly not all) people believe there’s no reason to investigate the root cause or pursue alternative solutions.

While there’s definitely a genetic component to depression, and neurotransmitters play key roles, most depression requires some precipitating series of environmental inputs. The vast majority of babies with “depressive genes” don’t come out of the womb listless and morose with “bad brain chemicals.” They may be more or less susceptible to the environmental factors that can trigger depression later in life, but they still require those factors.

What’s happening? Clearly, something novel is afoot. Although we don’t have data on the mental health of paleolithic hunter-gatherers, extant hunter-gatherers exhibit an almost complete lack of depression.

What might help fill in one neglected dimension is to examine what’s unique about modern society.

It Is Atomized

People exist in their own bubbles. We sit in cars, in cubicles, in houses, in separate rooms. Even friends out to lunch are often seen gazing into their smartphones, half-ignorant of the normal waking reality occurring around them. Families gather in the living room not to play board games and chat about the day, but to access their personal portals into cyberspace. Together but apart. It may feel like we’re connecting, but we’re really just lonely. Like something out of a post-Sergeant Peppers Beatles dystopian concept album, the UK even just established a Ministry of Loneliness.

Loneliness has stronger associations with depression than any other social isolation indicator.

Lack Of Tribe

Robin Dunbar came up with Dunbar’s Number after studying disparate tribes and communities across the world: The maximum number of fulfilling, meaningful social relationships a person can reasonably maintain is about 150. We’re geared to desire social acceptance from our tribe, because social acceptance in a tribe of 150 people is both feasible and desirable. It increases survival. If “desire for social acceptance” is mediated by genes to at least some extent, it undergone positive selection; it was helpful and beneficial and supported species survival. Consider what the tribe originally meant: these are the people you grew up with, the people who will have your back. It’s important that your tribe accept you, and that you accept them. Things work better that way.

Today, our tribes are enormous and unwieldy. There’s the city. The state. The nation. The globe. Twitter. Our social media feeds. We can’t know everyone in our city, state, or Twitter feed, yet we get feedback from them. We see the best parts of their lives—what they show to the world—and compare them to the lowest parts of ours—what we hide from world but cannot escape internally. And then ironically, many of us feel estranged from or ignore the people who could actually comprise our true tribes—family, friends, loved ones, neighbors—even when they’re in the same room in favor of the larger, faker tribe. Yet the desire for social acceptance from this sprawling “tribe” persists. And it’s impossible to achieve for most people. Letting your tribe down hurts. We have tribes. They’re just not real or realistic.

Social media consumption predicts depressive symptoms.

It’s Devoid Of Higher Meaning

The roles of religion and other binding schools of philosophy and morality in society are waning. Most people can’t lean on the church or patriotism to find meaning or direction anymore. They must create their own, or discover it. That isn’t easy. It’s far simpler to ignore the void within, flip through your Netflix feed, and obsess about the latest superhero movie than it is to find your purpose.

Having a sense of life meaning is inversely associated with depression.

Life Is Easier

Most people (most reading this, anyway) aren’t walking three miles each way just for moderately fresh water that they still have to dose with iodine tabs or risk parasitic infection, slaving away their entire lives just to produce enough calories for their feudal lord and family, building their own homes out whatever they can manage and fixing whatever breaks (or not). They just turn the tap, order food from Thrive Market, call the plumber.

Work Is Increasingly “Information Work”

Rather than manipulate material objects in the world, we’re manipulating data, filling spreadsheets, fiddling with abstract numbers. Information work is no less real, but it doesn’t feel like that to our psyches.

Life Isn’t As Tragic

There are fewer “classic tragedies.” Fewer people lose loved ones to warfare, babies to disease. While we still have plenty of wars going on, they aren’t logging death counts like the World Wars or Genghis Khan’s conquests. Major civilian centers aren’t being leveled regularly by bombing raids. This is a positive development, but there’s a catch: Research shows that real life disasters strengthen bonds between friends, the neighbors, and the community. If we aren’t facing difficulties, we may not be living to our fullest potential.

Powerful Technology Is Widely Available Almost Everywhere

You can follow Maasai herders on Twitter. You can engage in live video chat with anyone in the world. No need to visit Grandma in Del Boca Vista; you can Facetime her!

Material Problems Are Disappearing

Most people get enough to eat, can get from here to there, can access the Internet, and get medical care if required. You have to try really hard in a modern Western society to die in the street. Even worldwide, poverty is falling. In 1981, nearly half the world’s population was “extremely poor.” As of 2016, it was under 10%. All that’s left are psychological problems.

Why am I here?

What’s the purpose of life?

Why should I continue working this job I don’t really like just to support the same boring routine?

This kind of rumination is a major factor in depression.

In Tribe, Sebastian Junger shows how veterans returning from war—on paper, a hellish experience no one would ever miss—feel suddenly lonely, lost, and often depressed back home. War compresses human experience and intensifies human bonding like nothing else. When these men and women leave war, they’re leaving the strongest, most cohesive tribe they’ve ever known. They’re leaving people who’d die for them and for whom they’d die. What, are they supposed to stand in line at Starbucks, staring at their phones like everyone else and think everything is just fine?

Why are potential root societal causes ignored?

For one, they’re huge problems. A pill is way easier than restructuring the fabric of modern society. If you did that, you’d have to get it right the first time. You can’t exactly run an RCT on social upheaval.

Two, we assume a shared environment. Most of the people you see walking around eat the same basic diet, do the same basic exercises (or don’t), and deal with the same societal pressures and conditions. If you look at things wrong, it seems immutable and unavoidable. Even if they’re aware on some level that modern living is involved in the etiology of depression, most clinicians are assuming, based on prior experience with patients and their own misconceptions about what’s possible and what’s not, that we just have to accept it and apply the best band-aids we have. But if you’ve approached diet and exercise from an evolutionary angle and had incredible results where nothing else had ever worked—you know that common is not normal. You know that the environmental inputs shared by so many in the industrialized world might be persistent and tempting and hard to avoid, but they are avoidable. You can change your surroundings, your inputs, even your mindset.

Three, it isn’t clear what the solutions even are. The world is better today in many ways. Just because many veterans find their tribe in war and suffer upon returning, it doesn’t follow that we should go to war more often for our mental health.

We can’t rely on technocratic overlords to engineer the perfect utopia. Those always end in dystopias—more Brave New World than 1984. No, any change has to start within each individual, at dinner tables, in friend circles, in one person—you—deciding to do things differently.

I won’t get much into diet or exercise or sunlight or sleep today. Those are major parts of the equation, but I prefer to focus on how the structure of our society impacts depression and how we can transcend it.

These are some ideas. They’re not perfect. They’re not the whole story. And they’re not meant to replace medication or therapy or anything like that. But they won’t hurt….

Listen to the “first voice.” Every time you get that little voice saying “I should finally pick up that book” or “I should walk the dog” or “I wonder what my friends are up to,” DO IT. Don’t let the other voice override you and say “Nah, let’s just stay inside today.” That second voice is destroying you. Do everything you can to ignore it.

In low moments, rather than try to cheer yourself up, be of service to someone. A concerted effort to cheer oneself up often produces the opposite effect. We’re not great at doing it for ourselves, perhaps because at some level we sense it’s all a sham, a ploy to shift around neurotransmitters. But when you help someone else, you’re truly helping them. They feel good, you feel good, and everyone wins.

Chase meaning, not happiness. “Being happy” is hard work. You can’t get there by trying. Figure out what you care about at the deepest level of your being. What stirs you. What, most importantly, you can actually affect with your skillset. If you can manage to imbue every fiber of your being with that purpose, you’ll get going after it. You’ll have something to do, and maybe you’ll have less time for rumination and other things that make your depression worse.

Easier said than done, you might say. Definitely. I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve helped people close to me who have. Clinical depression isn’t just sadness. It’s profoundly demotivating, where taking even the smallest act like getting dressed can be a struggle. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in movement and achievement and motivation, tends to plummet in major depression.

Still, what else is there? You are an individual, not an atom. An atom is separate but unconscious. It has no agency. It simply is. An individual is separate from other individuals but conscious. It has agency. It can form communities, strong bonds. Revel in your personal sovereignty but don’t forget that you’re a social animal who will probably be much happier with a few good friends (who aren’t all wielding smartphones 24-7).

There are other specific things to try. Trawl the scientific literature and you’ll find hundreds of studies showing efficacy for any number of medication-free depression therapies and interventions. None of them are the final answer, though, as much as they can help. Ballroom dancing isn’t going to fix things. Gardening isn’t enough. Heavy squats won’t do it. Plunging into cold water isn’t everything.

It has to be a comprehensive shift.

The common theme running through most of these “alternative” interventions is that it places you square in the midst of cold hard reality. You’re on your knees, handling soil and planting vegetables. You’re dancing, immersed in the music and managing the dynamic interplay between you and your partner. You’re lifting something very heavy. You’re completely submerged in freezing water. These are real. They cannot be escaped or negotiated with. They aren’t running on perpetual loops inside your head. They’re actually happening.

Get as much of that in your life.

In the future, I’ll discuss this topic further. I’ll talk about dietary, exercise, lifestyle, supplement, and psychological modifications we can make.

For now, I’d love to hear from you. Those who’ve dealt with or who currently deal with depression, what’s helped? What hasn’t? What’s your take on the list of social factors that may explain the rise in depression—or the severity of symptoms as you experience them? What do you think we can do—as individuals and as a society—to make things better?

Thanks for reading. Take care.


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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70 thoughts on “The Roots of Depression: How Much Does Modern Culture Have to Do With It?”

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  1. I’ve dealt with depression most of my life and have been off medications for several years. I’m not sure exactly what helped me but I believe it was several things all working together: getting involved in my faith and my church community, moving closer to family, forcing myself to get outside – sometimes for just a few minutes – even when I don’t want to, and drastically changing my diet. For me, I had improvement when I switched from a SAD to a paleo diet, but I have had significant improvements since I went to a keto diet. Other things that I believe have helped me are try to manage my stress better, and making myself get up a little bit earlier a few mornings per week to do yoga, or sometimes just read and drink a cup of coffee. I’ve learned that I need some quiet time to myself each day.

    1. This! I wasn’t going to comment, but I’m trying to listen to my first voice. lol.
      Kte, my experience is very similar. I just haven’t tried keto yet (easing into it in May) so I am encouraged by your post. Everything else is +1. <3

    2. A meat and greens only diet cured Jordan Peterson and his daughter Mikhaila’s depression.

      1. They went on that diet to address autoimmune issues. Just to clarify. Not trying to mansplain.

        1. JTR, I don’t think that is mansplaining, I think it is simply being helpful and /or correcting an error. Nobody wants anyone to be that defensive (at least I don’t think they do).

        2. LOL I wonder if Peterson would support the use of the concept “mansplaining”. I personally detest that word.

          1. That’s because it’s a (fake, propagandistic) term used as BLUDGEON to whack men for not acting like (liberal/prog/commie) women! (You might notice, conservative or Christian women do NOT complain of such!)

            “Mansplaining” equals: “I will not listen to you whether or not you have facts, experience, and reality backing you up! I want to retain MY views and not consider any dissenting views! So shut up and submit.”

            (And if you think J Peterson is a good source for info, read “Jordanetics.” Good book, if a bit scathing. (Appropriately scathing…)

    1. You know, you’re not wrong. Even if all you do is read the blog, which is all I did for like a decade (the shame!), MDA is a cheerful place to be. I’m profoundly grateful for the content, but maybe just as grateful for the optimism and general kindness of Mark’s writing. When I was depressed, as I was off and on, it made me feel better just to look in–less lonely, in fact, though I only ever lurked!

  2. Mark, I generally like what you write and often reflect on your ideas, but this post today has me deeply emotional. Your musings feel correct to me. I just deactivated my fb account the other day because after 4 years of commenting on the posts of an immense tribe, I cannot keep up any longer. I also sensed loneliness and sadness while staying overly connected with friends I never visit. I don’t want to write too much, but I will be thinking about and sharing your wisdom for a long time. Thank you for expressing what I have been thinking but didn’t know how to voice myself.

  3. “.. Those always end in dystopias—more Brave New World than 1984….”

    Ummmm…. BOTH of those were dystopias.

  4. LOVE the idea of first voice. Think that can apply to so many things in life. I don’t suffer from depression. My life is not perfect and I’ve been through some crazy things, but I totally love where I am and where I am headed. So I think there’s definitely something to having a purpose, or sense of direction in life. Something I did suffer with in the past was anxiety. While there were many factors involved, I saw a huge improvement when I gradually transitioned from vegan to Primal. I believe it had a lot to do with increasing the quality fats in my diet, especially animal fat. Our brains are made up of fat, much of it saturated, so it makes sense that it would affect our brain health.

    1. Love your line… “I totally love where I am and where I am headed.” It inspires hope of that which is possible.

      Wife (the biological dentist) always says that the poorest oral health patients are crystal meth addicts and vegans… followed in the distance by chronic tobacco abusers. If those vegans don’t incorporate liver, bone marrow, fish eggs, sun, etc… she won’t treat them bc she knows that she can’t get them better.

      Thank you for sharing about your vegan to Primal experience.

      1. Thanks Liver King…life really does keep getting better, and so much of it is the way we chose to view it. So interesting about your wife’s experience with vegans. I talked about by vegan to primal experience a lot in the beginning (even on the Primal Blueprint podcast a few years back) but now that I’ve been primal for so long I don’t bring it up as much. I should probably be more vocal because I know it could help some people.

  5. I have dealt with depression for much of my life. As a child, part of it was growing up in a home with a lot of emotional abuse and some physical abuse (there was probably more of that going on behind closed doors). I also think that the diet I was raised on – very low fat, low protein, carb-centric (in the 80’s and 90s) had an effect.
    As an adult in my 40s, I still struggle. The number one thing that helps is exercise. For me, running in particular helps but any type of exercise can help me. Diet has a very direct impact, as well. Eating adequate protein and fats can very quickly impact my mood. If I am eating primal or even mostly primal, I am not prone to crippling episodes of depression where getting out of bed is a chore.

    I like the bit about lack of tribe. That is my experience, but I have found it much easier to begin to create my tribe BECAUSE of social media. I have been able to find other like minded people to communicate with about experiences. I have found people to get together with in person where I just didn’t know how to find people before other than go to bars or go to church – neither of which makes sense for a person who is giving up alcohol and doesn’t subscribe to any religious dogma. If I want to find someone to run with, I can post in a Facebook group and find people who are about the same pace and don’t live too far away.

  6. An interesting read. I don’t suffer from depression, but I have noticed that when I consume wheat on a daily basis for a few weeks, aside from the physical effects, I become easily angered. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I tend to take it out on my family. Not violently, but through constant arguing and fighting over little things. When I go off the wheat again, I’m happy as can be within 3 days.

    As for the community part, my grandfather recently passed away after a stroke left him confined to a nursing home two years prior. We visited him regularly, someone was there for at least one meal per day, 4-5 days per week. But I was surprised at how many residents rarely had visitors. Those same residents appeared to be the most depressed.

  7. The real problem. There is ZERO scientific proof for anything that physiologists say. They only have theories and are guessing that medications solve anything. The truth is all that those anti-depressants are no better than placebos statistically when real scientific studies are done on them. People put way way too much faith in modern psychologists. I don’t know why real medical doctors put up with their quackery and their lack of actual proof in what they do.

    1. #1: So how many years of clinical experience and psychology study do you have to be able to make a pronouncement like that about a profession that seeks to help people?
      #2: physiologist
      an expert in or student of the branch of biology that deals with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts.

    2. Absolutely. SSRI’s don’t heal chemical balances, they create them. And then there’s bad craziness, murder, and mayhem when people stop those drugs. Read about it at

      1. Jeff, I hear you loud and clear and thanks so much for sharing, I’ve seen that site and there are definitely some real concerns. However, people who have problems often try SSRI’s to help mitigate the problem. So if they commit anti-social acts, then it’s the fault of the SSRI? Maybe, but there is something called the cause-and-effect fallacy. My philosophy is to lead as healthy, natural a lifestyle as possible and avoid pharmaceuticals as much as possible. I’ve had many “discussions” (to the point of offending them) with allopathic doctors about their over-reliance on prescribing pharmaceuticals. However, despite all my deep breathing, relaxing music, exercise, journaling, natural seratonin-increasing supplements … my panic attacks almost forced me to quit my profession. The daily Lexapro 10mg tablet I take is the only thing that really seems to make a major impact, and if it’s a placebo it’s a darn good one. You can introduce all the seratonin in the world but if you don’t utilize it (you re-uptake it) it will not help you. You can go to WebMD or other sites and read some negative comments yes, but there are also many positive reviews of Lexapro (for example, it is one of the “cleaner” SSRI’s). But yeah, if you are having a bad reaction to ANY supplement be it natural or pharmaceutical, taper off of it as quickly as you can. Regards, George

    3. Confusing thread. There’s a difference between physiology and psychology. They aren’t the same thing. However, I do tend to agree with your last two sentences. I would venture to guess that a small percentage of people are helped by psychology (or psychiatry) a small percentage of the time, but more often than not it’s an expensive waste of time that has acquired an undeservedly glowing reputation.

      1. My point exactly … if you are going to rail against a profession at least get the spelling correct LOL. As far as your assertion, it’s a common one, and I think psychological counseling is denigrated by many people, that’s fine, we all have our own perception of reality, that in most cases is self-fulfilling. You can’t go into counseling with a negative attitude, of course it won’t help you in that case. It’s been helpful to me a few times, but it’s far from a cure all, and should be a springboard to taking positive action, not just a mechanism for pitying yourself. These folks are trained to be compassionate, yet clinical (which is a delicate balance) and to help you move forward by guiding you to take positive actions.

    4. Great discussion Mark!

      Ham solo is correct in that antidepressants are no more effective than placebo. The only thing antidepressants provide over placebo is the risk of side effects. For a detailed, and dense, read, check out Placebo Talks by Amir Raz

      The book also explains that the neurotransmitter hypothesis (that depression is due to imbalance of certain neurotransmitters) doesn’t hold up to scrutiny

      Mark’s point about removing agency is spot on. It appears elsewhere in common excuses, such as “I have an addictive personality”. So, it’s your personality that’s addictive, right? Not you? That’s tantamount to saying I have a promiscuous or flirtatious penis. I’m not cheating on you babe, it’s my penis!

      For solutions, let’s remember Liver King’s idea to be uncomfortable. He advocates for sleeping on the floor and cold showers. Excellent ideas! Being surrounded by comfort can get boring and boredom can be a serious problem. Antifragile by Taleb gives excellent insight into this idea too

      More solutions: I like the idea that exercise is the poor man’s Prozac.

      1. Kirk – “exercise is the poor man’s Prozac”

        To me, that is like saying ‘Plastic is the poor man’s leather’.

        It appears to imply that exercise is not as good as Prozac.

  8. These musings always remind me of the american indians roaming the wilds for 20,000 years and then being taken over and put to work in a hardware store for 8 hours a day. Many commited suicide or went insane. I don’t think we were meant to be so damned structured (50 hr. work week, off for two days, 50 weeks a year, year after year after year). It’s a strange thing indeed to go to work for someone that is NOT YOUR TRIBE, especially when they don’t share much of their booty. Gotta keep those shareholders happy.

    1. Exactly! And they weren’t doing the exact same thing, day after day after month after year. They were maybe hunting one week, building tools the next, crafting canoes after that, then maybe preparing the shelter for winter, or whatever. Their jobs change with the season. And they were doing it for the benefit of the tribe, not for their own personal gain.

      1. Modern Day equivalent: Being of service to others in a way that feels good. Contributing to something meaningful and to a society/group of people you care about

    2. This dovetails with my own experience. I found that if I was practicing a physical skill (making or building something real) I felt happy and focused. If I just work in an office all day (I’m a technical writer, and I do a lot of that), I get depressed. The American Indians had lives that involved the constant exercise of skills and physical effort to find or grow food, preserve food, build shelter, make clothing, deal with unexpected crises, etc. I think that is what all humans evolved to do.

  9. Great article Mark. It lends to the book I recently read called “Creating Optimism” by Bob Murray and ALicia Fortinberry. It talks about this very thing. There was no depression in the hunter-gatherer tribes. They all took care of each other. I don’t have depression, but my husband does and living with someone who suffers from depression can be just as painful. I never know if it is going to be a good day or a bad day for him; if something I say or the kids do that will set him off. We can definitely pinpoint when this deeper depression began. It was after the loss of several friendships and a job he just cannot take much longer. We have begun to isolate ourselves due to him not wanting to go anywhere. I have high hopes that the job he is interviewing for in a couple of weeks helps him get where he wants to be and lifts this dark cloud. It will lead to a new “tribe” and a better sense of belonging for him. BTW, he is retired military and has been struggling off and on since he retired as well–lost his sense of identity.

    1. “I never know if it is going to be a good day or a bad day for him; if something I say or the kids do that will set him off.”

      Having been married for 17 years to a ‘confirmed’ suicidal man (whom I ADORED!), PLEASE spend some time working on the fact that there is nothing you say or the kids do that “set him off”! You cannot accept (or ‘take on’ by your own choice) ANY responsibility for his mental or emotional state. (Assuming, of course, you’re not poking him with sticks when he awakens… <- KIDDING!)

      It took me a few years to finally realize that *I* would not be the cause nor could I be the 'preventer' of his suicide, if he choose to do it. (I made clear to him that I thought it was the coward's way out.) It's very hard to set that down — let me assure you — but not setting it down (and even THINKING to yourself that your children can somehow "cause it") will result in damage to you and them!

      Granted (?) suicide is worse than depression (heavier burden, at least?) but, of course, the two are usually related. Michael had drunk turpentine as a teen, and was dismayed to find it didn't kill him. {eye roll} He was preparing his company to carry on when I met him (he was 46; I, 41); and I became his 'life preserver.' But, a life preserver only works if the guy GETS OUT OF THE OCEAN! And the life preserver is not responsible if he doesn't!

      I fell into managing my everything — and as much of his everything as I could try to — and it was NOT within my control! I finally had to face that, accept it, and give up "being responsible" for whatever he chose to feel or do. (I did not "abandon" him, merely allowed him to be responsible for his own choices.)

      So, my married life sounds grim, doesn't it? It wasn't, once I gave up (non-existent) "control." Lonelier, when I wasn't white knighting about him (which created both my own sense of hope I could fix him and dismay at my failure and inability to do so); but I was able to love and support him without getting pulled under the ocean's surface. We are finite, falable humans; we are not able to do all and fix all.

      (Amazingly) My "fix" came when he was having occasional angina (in his late 50s). I'd offered various things (once a white knight, always one! {shrug} But an OFFER, not an attempt to help.) Of course, he wouldn't see a doctor, take vitamins, or anything — for his depression OR his heart. I (madly researching) suggested that he try fish oil cause: "they prescribe in Germany for angina!" (I did NOT tell him they also prescribe it for depression. TMI!)

      I describe the effects as: "yeah-sure, it eased the angina — but O.M.G.! It also healed his brain!" Where before he would not respond to my coaxing to come out to the cul-de-sac parties my neighbors would throw, now HE was dragging out chairs and calling for them! Instead of feeling sad that his heroes (including his dad: brain aneurysm) had died by age 56 — and he hadn't; NOW he was looking forward to a longer life!

      I had a good, solid 3-4 years of Michael 'as he should have been' — and then he died at age 60 of a heart attack. Alas.

      Not suggesting fish oil is magic — although it was for us for a short while — but I do NOT agree that you can 'set his depression off' by something you say or your children do. It's HARD to set down **false** responsibility, but you must!

  10. After moving from an area I loved, followed by the death of someone I loved and my mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I became so depressed I barely made it out of bed all day. Medication may have given me the inpetus, but what I felt helped most was volunteering at the animal shelter and daily walking. I took medication for a year, but I’ve been volunteering at that same animal shelter for 25 years now.

  11. Thank you for this. Major depression is a topic that so many people fear discussing. It’s complicated and elusive and daunting. After many years of searching for answers, one of my first effective steps out of depression was to break each and every action down to a dichotomous choice: life or death? There is nothing easy about it, but I decide over and over again that every day, no matter how dark that cloud looming in my periphery, is a blessing I want to accept.
    Choosing life allowed me to find my passion for growing, preparing, and sharing whole foods and years later has led me to a way of being that underscores the “life” in lifestyle. I remove the pieces that don’t honor my best self like negative self-talk and comparing myself to others. I give myself purpose each day. I require myself to both socialize and take time for myself. Selecting whole and clean foods, increasing fat and limiting carbohydrates, my hormones came into balance, my moods are stable, and my emotional responses are less reactionary. I have put a lot of work into creating bits of happiness and people who know me best are amazed at what this primal lifestyle has added to my toolbox of self-care strategies. I am thriving and loving myself in a way that I hadn’t before. I am grateful for every step and all of the support and shared knowledge that has carried me here.

  12. This is so powerful, Mark! Our society is so quick to turn to pharmaceuticals to treat depression; it is almost politically incorrect to suggest that lifestyle changes be implemented to help the healing process. I worry about the short and long term side effects of these meds as I have observed family members prescribed additional drugs to combat the negative effects of the initial prescription. It’s so scary!

  13. Nature! No matter how rough life may be at times, hiking in wild and quiet landscapes makes me happy.

  14. My husband has lived with chronic depression for nearly 20 years. Medication never helped, and he struggled for a long time. Last year, on a hope and a prayer, we started him on a combination of SAM-e, B6, D3, and L-methylfolate. It was like a switch flipped in his head. He says it’s like a fog lifted, and the world is sharp and in focus. And now that his mind is feeling better, he can actually do more to focus and attend to those social and dietary factors that improve life even more!

  15. You forgot one thing. Financial instability. It is the dark secret of modern society that nobody want to name as a cause. When people don’t have enough money to have their basic needs met, nothing in their life is stable. Modern people are entirely dependent upon money. That, I think, is a big reason for increasing depression.

    1. I agree, money or lack thereof, is incredibly important in so many ways in life. For example, all the supplements one is advised to take for various ailments, including depression; the expensive foodstuffs – organic, grass-fed, etc: none are within reach of most average people.

      Of course it is always a choice what one prioritises. But poorer people have much less of a choice – one has to pay the rent and feed and clothe the kids. How much is left over?

      But then again, a lot of readymade food and processed food is actually more expensive than the unrefined foods. I think teaching children at an early age how to eat and cook from unrefined would be a huge step for health and finances.

  16. I’ve dealt with depression most of my adult life. It runs in the family and no one ever talks about it, so I fly solo on this one. For me, I do the following: a solid 8 hours of sleep most nights, paleo diet, no narcotics or alcohol, exercise on a daily basis, solid outlook on life, and knowing who I am and who I am not.

  17. I don’t believe Mr. Sisson’s area of expertise is mental health, but some interesting musings none-the-less.

  18. Hi Mark!

    Wonderful post. I wonder what you think of the idea of “paradox of choice”. Some research suggests that our abundance of options (and options for finding the options) results in an enormous, paralyzing pressure to make perfect choices:

    I’ve suffered from major depression on and off most of my life, and the most relief I found was when living on a small island with a population of only 10,000. The size and isolation limited choices (only one grocery store!), and definitely created a “tribe” mentality. I moved from the island to a city and my mood immediately took a noise dive.

    Not the most practical solution for everyone 🙂

  19. Has any one looked into the work of Kelly Brogan? She is a conventionally trained psychiatrist who came to the conclusion that most meds for anxiety and depression gave virtually no benefits for most people beyond a placebo effect. She works with patients now trying to get them to make serious lifestyle and dietary changes that are more in tune with what our bodies and brains need for health. She has a book out called A Mind of your Own which recommends a lot of similar themes to a primal lifestyle.

  20. For me, finding a new way to play helped. Play takes me out of myself.

  21. What is depression? What is its function?

    We think less of ourselves, it slows us down in mind and body and makes it appear harder for us to adapt. Typically it occurs after a loss that may be emotional or material. So, why does the emotion of depression exist?

    Its really quite simple. Emotions help us adapt. The adaptive advantage of depression is that it helps us to get used to the changed situation. Nothing more. Nothing less. We lost being in charge of the tribe and so had to get used to that. Stepping down and thinking slower, moving slower etc can help adjust in such simple situations.

    But our psychology grew more complex after primitive times as our society became more complex and morale matters are now often involved. In other words, if we fail at some morale matter then we can feel depression to help adjust. In the case of a morale matter we also experience guilt – if we have learnt to associate guilt with punishment in our childhood then we may experience a sense of guilt, depression and feel that we deserve punishment.
    The complexity of our psychology has grown so much since primitve times that we now distinguish shades of grey rather than black and white. In the grey shades, due to our greater perception and awareness we are conscious of a wider range of failures than in the past. So that we may experience tiny amounts of depression which add up if these tiny subtle failures occur over time. The stepping down reaction of depression is not really very helpful in these modern shades of grey situations unlike the primitive simple one.
    In simple situations depression also helps reduce nervous tension\anxiety by slowing down thinking etc. So, from another angle reducing nervous tension\anxiety will also help reduce depression. How to do that? Learning how to let the mind slow down and become still ie Ainslie Meares’ stillness meditation method which is really the minds own natural method of gaining mental rest. Conversely, a person who is anxious will tend to experience problems due to behaviours fuelled by the anxiety, for example, If I want to go out but feel tense and anxious about that then I will be frustrated, the advantages of going out social\other are not realised and I may feel depressed. Anxiety may tend to have secondary depression associated with it. In some cases, a person who has depression may really have anxiety that is leading to depression. On the other hand, in learning Meare’s style of meditation, anxiety is reduced, improved patterns of behaviour can occur and little successes add up (rather than a series of little amounts of depression due to a series of failures).

    Meares’ whose ideas I have been paraphrasing above also believed that we are evolving an experiential understanding to replace depression. An experience that lies beyond reasoning. He called it a philosophical understanding but, people often mistakenly think that relates to logical philosophy rather than a different way of experiencing things. Another way of relating it, is to think of it as a way the mind understands that is beyond the constraints of logic. Learning to use the mind in this way is helped by learning Ainslie Meare’s stillness meditation method.

    I am currently working a system of integrating Meares’ Method with the other aspects of the primal blueprint\evolutionary health – depression being the example discussed here. Ainslie Meares’ method has very wide application and fits neatly into the evolutionary health – primal blueprint paradigm
    I hope this is of interest
    Owen Bruhn


    Men evolved fighting, hunting, protecting… struggling… persevering… winning. And when we win, we get rewarded with a boost of dopamine, androgens and more things that cultivate such behavior. Androgens also help us to win! In modernity, there are not a lot of natural opportunities for boys and men to put themselves in harms way… to overcome real struggle… to really fight for something of value… to win. I believe in contact sports but what happens when that’s over and done. I believe for us men to really thrive, we have to possess a type of high courage to continue to fight for something meaningful… to foster an inner fire… to take real risks… and to continue to create opportunities to win. Look for opportunities that scare the sh** out of you… look for opportunities to live again! Want some more ideas…

    I’m not saying that I have the answers, this is just what I believe. I’ve put together some actionable “to do’s” if anyone is interested. Just let me know.

    1. FOR THE WOMEN – Women evolved working to protect and nurture themselves, their men, and their children. While there may have been less fighting in their lives, there was a great deal of work and planning, skill development, and a quieter, more stubborn type of courage.
      I think all humans need goals toward which to strive, and I mean both physical and mental striving. We are programmed to be makers, doers, and problem solvers. Without being able to act in these roles, we go off the rails.

      1. Couldn’t agree more! Raising boys, I have a strong bias for studying the way of men. Perhaps the same fundamental tenets apply… leading with purpose.

        When one clearly knows their place in tribe (their role, their contribution, their purpose), one doesn’t aimlessly search for their place in this world… they know exactly where they belong.

  23. Just finished listening to Elle’s interview with Rob Mack on the Primal Blueprint Podcast…so inspiring and really ties in with this whole convo. Totally worth a listen!

  24. Another blog I frequent, The Art of Manliness, had a great series on depression. The articles begin with the history of depression and end with concrete ways to combat it. It parallels much of what you say here, but I do recommend it for anyone who is interested in this topic. The final article, which sums up the series nicely and provides some suggested courses of action, is here:

  25. I once read a study that has been helpful to me. One group wrote on the topic “I wish I …” and the other group wrote “I am glad I’m not…” The latter then measured happier. So longing for what you dont have makes people unhappy. Framing your troubles as “it could be worse” helps.

  26. I’ve struggled with depression (mostly seasonal) and anxiety. I’m lucky in that both are improved by primal living, and by keto, and other lifestyle choices. Depression happens. Some people are more prone to it. If you’ve never had it, it is impossible to understand how difficult just basic daily living can be. One thing that has helped me immensely: to acknowledge it, recognize it is transitory, and not inhabit it. Life is a roller coaster, there will be ups and downs. I’m lucky in that I know that an up is coming. Other people don’t have this assurance. I treat my depression and anxiety with sleep, alone time, living seasonally (sleeping more in winter, etc) tribe time, and making sure there is always something on my calendar to look forward to. Just want to add that depression is a gamut from mild to debilitating, and I feel uncomfortable reading this post, reading the responses, and responding myself because mental illness often had nothing to do with lifestyle choices we make or do not make and it just seems disrespectful to those that suffer the hard end of it to discuss it like this when you’ve never experienced it.

  27. As usual Mark, right on point. A lot of thought provoking questions and ideas, and I love the tools for transcending depression. Hoping you are planning a companion piece on anxiety.

  28. I forgot to add-one thing everyone should check if they have depression is thyroid and iron levels. When I get anemic, I can’t even get out of bed. I also take Ancestral Supplements beef thryoid-awesome product.

  29. At the onset of the article I recognized some of the themes present in Sebastian Jungers book “Tribe”. I highly recommend it, for those not interested in reading Mr. Junger appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast twice discussing the subject in detail . I listened several times was profoundly moved by the discussion.

    1. Exactly… “Tribe” is beyond valuable; however, in biological systems, it’s rarely one (or) the other that produces results (for good or bad) but rather the combination of diet, lifestyle and behavior. Junger is spot on with behavior and even gets a small piece of lifestyle right. Tribe has made a profound difference in my life.

      I have downloaded the podcasts… thank you for that Dave!

  30. I think the best cure for depression is making or doing something useful. I certainly know this works for me. I do not mean making something merely decorative. I mean making something that can be used, or doing something useful. A piece of furniture. A quilt. A new raised bed in the garden. Raking the lawn. Pruning a tree. Even cooking a meal.
    I find that these “cures” are best if they involve physical work. And large projects that involve stages (building a gazebo, laying down a patio, building a deck, painting a room), or projects done in cooperation with other people, work best.
    Humans have needed to work to live for many centuries. I think much of the depression in the modern world stems from idleness, and the resultant feelings of pointlessness and uselessness. Ironic though it is, it is our wealth and luxury that depresses us.

    1. Reminds me of a friend who grew up on a farm, and her father’s oft-repeated mantra: “Productivity is good for morale!”

    2. Everyone is different, degrees and geneses of depression vary enormously and there is no cure-all for everyone suffering depression.

      When you are immobilised in all ways, maybe suicidal, can’t get out of bed, don’t eat, don’t wash, don’t care if you live or die, don’t wish to engage with anyone or anything, then to have someone suggest that you do something useful is beyond the realm of your imagination or capability.

      It may be that an anti-depressant can kick start the slow journey to wellness – or doing some small pleasurable activity in your bed or on the couch – Sudoku, sewing, reading, drawing – can gradually awaken you and bring you to the surface away from blackness.

      People with extreme depression need professional support to surmount the first hump of emotional blackness. They need help to get to that professional help. It is complicated.

  31. I think your points here all true and important, but there’s a couple simpler things I think are huge too: time spent outdoors, exercise, and of course, enough sleep. Not to minimize serious depression, but I do think those things help me a lot in staving off borderline depression, and I have to think they’d help people with more serious problems at least somewhat, too.

    1. You are absolutely right. Even conventional doctors advise daily exercise, and check for sleep issues in depression patients.

  32. This post gave me goose-bumps all the way. Having prolonged anxiety episodes for a year was the warning sign I couldn’t ignore, turned the ship around via Movnat, Primal eating and living, left the big city and the Investment Banking job, and now I’m a lean, mean, BJJ tackling cold showering father of 4.

    One has to hit rock bottom to make changes like these happen, it’s not a Tuesday afternoon decision about wanting to do it, it’s life slinging turds in your face and understanding the consequences of not doing it.


    1. By the way, was prescribed Lexapro for the anxiety by a well-meaning Psychiatrist, who, God bless him, told me I had nothing to do with it – after months of taking this medication I had no sex drive, dormant taste buds and zombie feelings.

      I hold no grudge on conventional medical wisdom, but the truth is that I WAS responsible for the situation and I was the only one that could change that, not a pill or a Doctor.

  33. For me, I actually tried to follow the primal blueprint for a while, but would often give up and fall off the tracks and just couldn’t find physical wellness.. because I was harboring toxic levels of stress, anxiety, and depression from an emotionally abusive childhood(which I had suppressed very deep, AND emotional abuse victims, especially children, are often led to believe the abuse is their fault and ultimately that there’s something wrong with them). I’m realizing now why the 100 times I couldn’t heal my body, was because I hadn’t healed my mind. I had a binge eating disorder I was in complete denial about. Now I’m feeling like I could start taking care of my body again. My experience might be solace to anyone who may know they’ve had an adverse past and may be avoiding it for perfectly good reason, and have tried to “take care of themselves” many times and just couldn’t bring themselves around to doing it.

  34. Depression is one of the rapidly increasing problems in masses. In recent times, there are a number of cases that have been found related to depression. People look happy from outside but their laugh isn’t real because there are a lot of things that they hiding from their friend and family. A lovely and informative article that deals with this very important depression. Thanks for sharing, Mark.