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The Ancient Cure For Depression

By Sara Burrows

Counteracting the Health Impact of a “Civilized Lifestyle”

Depression is a global epidemic. It is the main driver behind suicide, which now claims more than a million lives per year worldwide. One in four Americans will suffer from clinical depression during their lifetimes, and the rate is increasing with every generation.

It robs people of sleep, energy, focus, memory, sex drive and their basic ability to experience the pleasures of life, says Stephen Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure. It can destroy people’s desire to love, work, and play, and even their will to live. If left unchecked, it can cause permanent brain damage. Depression lights up the pain circuitry of the brain to such an extent that many of Ilardi’s psychiatric patients have called it torment, agony, or torture. “Many begin to look to death as a welcome means of escape,” he said in a TED Talks presentation.

But depression is not a natural disease. It is not an inevitable part of being human. Ilardi argues that, like many diseases, depression is a disease of civilization. It’s a disease caused by a high-stress, industrialized, modern lifestyle that is incompatible with our genetic evolution.

Depression is the result of a prolonged stress-response, Ilardi said. The brain’s “runaway stress response,” as he calls it, is similar to the fight-or-flight response, which evolved to help our ancestors when they faced predators or other physical dangers. The runaway stress response required intense physical activity for a few seconds, a few minutes, or—in extreme cases—a few hours.

“The problem is, for many people throughout the Western world, the stress response goes on for weeks, months, and even years at a time, and when it does that, it’s incredibly toxic,” Ilardi says.

Living under continually stressful conditions, as many modern humans do, is disruptive to neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can lead to sleep disturbance, brain damage, immune dysregulation, and inflammation, Ilardi says.

Civilization Is the Disease

Epidemiologists have now identified a long list of other stress-related diseases as “diseases of civilization”— diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, allergies, obesity, and cancer. These diseases are rampant throughout the developed world, but virtually nonexistent among modern-day aboriginal peoples.

In a study of 2,000 Kaluli aborigines from Papua New Guinea, only one marginal case of clinical depression was found. Why? Ilardi suggests it’s because the Kaluli lifestyle is very similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ lifestyle that lasted for nearly 2 million years before agriculture.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the human experience was lived in a hunter-gatherer context,” he says. “Most of the selection pressures that have sculpted and shaped our genomes are really well adapted for that environment and that lifestyle.”

Hominids have existed for nearly 3 million years, since homo habilis first began using stone tools. Our genus has undergone rapid environmental change since the advent of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago. And in the last 200 years, since the industrial revolution, our species has had to cope with what Ilardi calls “radical environmental mutation.”

While our environment has radically mutated, our human genome is essentially the same as it was 200 years ago, Ilardi says. “That’s only eight generations. It’s not enough time [for significant genetic adaptations].”

“There’s a profound mismatch between the genes we carry, the bodies and brains that they are building, and the world that we find ourselves in,” he said. “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fastfood- laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”

The Cure

Though he’s not entirely opposed to medication, Ilardi says we can throw all the drugs in the world at the depression epidemic, and it won’t make a dent.

Antidepressant use has gone up 300 percent in the last 20 years, but the rate of depression has continued to increase. One in nine Americans over age 12 is currently taking an antidepressant, and one in five has been on them at some point.

The answer, Ilardi says, is a change in lifestyle. He says the results of his six-step program have exceeded his wildest dreams.

  1. Exercise

  2. Omega 3 fatty acids

  3. Sunlight

  4. Healthy sleep

  5. Anti-ruminative activity

  6. Social connection

In his presentation, he emphasizes the importance of exercise and social connection, as they are two of the hardest parts of the program for modern Americans.

Exercise Is Not Natural

Ilardi says the results of exercise on depression are so powerful that if they could be reduced into a pill, it would be the most expensive pill on earth. The problem is 60 percent of American adults get no regular physical activity. Ilardi says it’s not their fault. Between long days at work and household and family responsibilities, who has the time or energy to hit the gym?

The dirty little secret about exercise, Ilardi says, is that “it is not natural.” We are designed to be physically active “in the service of adapted goals,” not to exercise on a hamster wheel.

Hunter-gatherers get four or more hours of vigorous physical activity every day, but if you ask them they will tell you they don’t exercise, Ilardi says. “They don’t work out. Working out would be crazy to them. They live.”

“When you put a lab rat on a treadmill…it will squat down on its haunches, and the treadmill starts to rub the fur and the skin right off its backside,” he said. “When you stare at a piece of exercise equipment, there is a part of your brain that’s screaming out ‘Don’t do it! You’re not going anywhere!'”

If you can’t go out gathering your own nuts and berries or hunting your own meat, Ilardi recommends brisk walking with a friend. Walking for 30 minutes, three times a week, has better effects on depression than Zoloft, he said.

Social Connection

Another huge factor in modern depression is the lack of social connection in our modern nuclear-family bubbles. “Face-time with our loved ones puts the breaks on our stress response,” Ilardi says.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent all day every day in the company of their loved ones. But we’ve replaced face time with screen time.

Unfortunately, illnesses, including mental illness, trigger people to isolate themselves, which only makes depression worse.

“Resist the urge to withdraw,” Ilardi says, “because when you’re ill, your body tells you to shut down and pull away. When you have the flu, that’s adaptive. When you have depression, it’s the worst thing in the world you could do.”

Rewilding and Tribal Living

What Ilardi doesn’t mention in his TED Talk is how difficult his cure is for most modern humans to attain. Sure, we’d all like more fresh air, sunlight, exercise, a better diet, better sleep, less monotonous work, and more interaction with loved ones—but who has time for all that?

I’m stuck here staring at my screen typing about it in an effort to make a living, and many of you don’t even have time to read this article because you have 50+ hours-a-week jobs of your own. Meanwhile, immediate-return hunter-gatherers work an average of 17 hours a week. In this world, we certainly can’t just quit our jobs to be less stressed. The financial problems that would cause would create more stress.

In my opinion, the answer lies in baby steps. Baby steps away from dependence on civilization, and toward nature, earth skills, and self-sustaining communal living.