Depression impacts millions of Americans every year. Most of these people are taking some form of antidepressant. In an SHTF situation, pharmacies will not be available. This article will cover alternative ways to manage depression where prescription drugs are not an option.
What Is Depression?
If we are going to form a backup plan, we need to understand what depression is. Depression is more than just sadness and grief. According to Psychiatry.org:
Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:
- Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Loss of energy or increased fatigue
- Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression.
What Causes Depression?
Depression is a complex condition without a single, root cause. It used to be thought that depression was just a lack of certain chemicals, neurotransmitters, in the brain. According to Harvard Health Publishing, however, depression is caused by a combination of factors.
It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It’s believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.
The article goes on to point out the importance of connective pathways, and not just the levels of the chemicals that travel them:
Popular lore has it that emotions reside in the heart. Science, though, tracks the seat of your emotions to the brain. Certain areas of the brain help regulate mood. Researchers believe that — more important than levels of specific brain chemicals — nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression. Still, their understanding of the neurological underpinnings of mood is incomplete.
Other factors play a role as well. Genetic predisposition, hormonal shifts, diet, lifestyle habits, experiencing trauma and loss all can increase your risk of depression. Nutritional deficiencies, food sensitivities, and imbalances in gut bacteria are often ignored causes of depression.
Depression doesn’t discriminate either. People from all walks of life may develop depression. However, gender and financial security are two factors that increase the risks. Women are twice as likely to develop depression as men. Not surprisingly, people with more financial security experience less depression than those struggling to get by.
How Many People Have Depression in the US
According to the CDC, depression impacted 8.1% of Americans over a two-week period from 2013-2016. The US population in 2016 was 323.4 million, according to the US Census. This means, in 2016, there were almost 26.2 million people with depression in the US.
This is different, however, than the number of people taking anti-depressant drugs. Anti-depressants are prescribed for multiple conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and generic “mood disorder” diagnoses.
According to Time Magazine, 13% of the population was prescribed anti-depressant medications in 2017. Given the US population in 2017 was 325.7 million people, 13% works out to be over 42.3 million people.
That’s 42.3 million people who will run out of medication post-SHTF that will need other options. Read that again.
The options discussed below will help for most people with mild to moderate depression. They won’t all work for all people, as every situation and every person is different. However, they may be able to make the situation less miserable.
However, considering that 30% of people who take anti-depressants do not actually feel better taking them, the following suggestions may be more helpful than one might think.
Types of Depression
There are different types of depression, as well as different levels of severity. There are 6 common types of depression in the US:
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Persistent Depressive Disorder- chronic, low-level depression lasting more than 2 years
- Bipolar Disorder
- Seasonal Depression
- Postpartum Depression
- Psychotic Depression
Each type is different and should be treated as such. What works for seasonal depression is not necessarily going to bring relief to someone with bipolar disorder. Depression can also be broken down into mild, moderate, and severe. What works for someone with mild depression may not help someone with severe depression.
Situations that Complicate or Exacerbate Depression
Certain conditions increase the risk or severity of depression. These can include (but are not limited to):
- Family history of depression
- Low self-esteem
- Being abused
- PTSD and C-PTSD
- Drug or alcohol abuse, aka “self-medicating”
- Having a chronic illness, (ex. Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Cancer, IBS)
If you find yourself or a loved one in one of these situations, address these to the best of your ability before an emergency. If your self-esteem is low or prior history of being abused is still bothering you, get help now while times are good. If you have a chronic illness, take what steps you can to reverse it and/or improve your overall health. These situations will only get worse post-SHTF, increasing the risk of depression.
Alternatives for Depression Management Post-SHTF
Understanding the factors triggering your own depression will help you sort out which strategy makes the most sense.
There isn’t a one size fits all diet to reverse depression. However, certain foods tend to make depression (and anxiety) worse. If you have food sensitivities, you may already know what I’m talking about.
Not all foods cause the same reaction in everyone. There are however, many foods that seem to trigger an inflammatory response. These include sugar, grains, dairy, and low-quality fats, especially trans fats.
Do eat more foods with protein, healthy fats, and lots of non-starchy vegetables for an anti-inflammatory diet. Lots of people follow the Mediterranean Diet for this reason. At the same time, we’re preppers. We like food options we can grow/harvest ourselves or store-bought with a long shelf life. Some suggestions are:
- Wild meat or fish
- Pastured meats
- Canned sockeye salmon
- Canned Herring
- Canned Sardines
- Canned oysters
- Healthy fats, including coconut oil, olive oil, as well as butter, lard, or tallow from pastured animals (exposure to the sun will lead to Vit D in the fat)
- Dark, leafy greens
- Canned Olives
- Sunflower seeds
- Berries (dehydrate them to make them shelf-stable)
Nutritional deficiencies can lead to depression symptoms. You wouldn’t know if that’s the case unless there is a good test available, or you try supplementation or seek out foods rich in that nutrient. Here are some nutrients whose deficiencies can lead to depression.
- B Vitamins, especially B6, Niacin, Folate, and B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Limit High-Carbohydrate Foods
One reason why we love carbs so much is that they make us feel good, temporarily. High-carb foods are typically our “comfort foods”. Mashed potatoes, stuffing, cornbread, pizza, and cake give us a temporary high.
Something to keep in mind is that if you have insulin resistance, your cells are less able to absorb nutrients. You develop insulin resistance by eating too many sugary foods, causing your blood glucose to rise. The pancreas then produces insulin to bring blood glucose back down to a healthy level. However, the more frequent your blood glucose rises, the more insulin it will take to get the same glucose-lowering effect. You become resistant to insulin and require higher and higher amounts to do the same job.
High-carbohydrate foods, like potatoes, corn, sugar, and bread, can only boost your mood momentarily. The good mood will disappear the moment your blood sugar drops again. The more high-carbohydrate foods you eat, the more insulin your body makes to lower it, and the less able you are to absorb nutrients.
You can still eat carbohydrates. But, if you have insulin resistance, it’s better to have fewer of them and get them from non-starchy vegetables, or a cup of berries. Non-starchy vegetables and berries will not cause blood glucose to spike, making them a better choice than grains or starches.
Get Outside! On the whole, we spend far too much time indoors. We are missing out on necessary sunlight , green space, and healthy soil bacteria.
We make Vitamin D from sun exposure to our skin. Careful, daily sun exposure also helps to increase our melanin and tolerance to the sun. When we avoid the sun, we put ourselves at risk for a sunburn if we are ever caught without a coverup or sunblock lotion. What you want to avoid is getting a burn. A sunburn is a radiation burn, and that is what can raise your risk for skin cancer.
We need Vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiencies are both very common in the US and easy to fix for free. Go outside. Get a little sun daily without burning. Easy peasy.
Green spaces are places like parks and forests that have, you guessed it, a lot of “green” to look at. Green spaces are associated with lower instances of depressive symptoms. Forest bathing is one way to experience green spaces to relieve depression.
The primary benefit that proponents assign to forest bathing is a reduction in stress levels. However, others go even further.
For instance, the authors of a 2017 review concluded that “forest therapy is an emerging and effective intervention for decreasing adults’ depression levels.” Other researchers have investigated whether forest bathing might also help prevent lung and heart disease.
Gardening is another way. Yes, you get time with plants and grow your own green leaves. But, you also get exposed to friendly bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae. Exposure to this bacteria leads to increased production of serotonin. Low serotonin levels are associated with depression.
No discussion of alternatives for depression is complete without discussing herbal remedies. Some people will get huffy and state loudly that they tried herbal remedies and they didn’t work. As an herbalist, however, I have seen herbs work where nothing else has.
I find that those who decry herbal remedies for depression have either been using herbs which are old and have lost their potency, haven’t taken them long enough, didn’t take the right dosage, or some combination of all three.
In general, fresh is better. Grow your own or wildcraft your own herbs. Check out my book, Prepper’s Natural Medicine, for how to make quality herbal remedies at home.
St John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is used regularly in Germany for both mild to moderate depression. A recent German study found that St John’s Wort is effective for severe depression. St John’s Wort can interact with prescription medication, like other psych meds (SSRIs, MAOIs), birth control, blood thinners, and anticonvulsants. However, if you are in the middle of a post-SHTF scenario anticipated to last months or longer, you’re going to run out of those meds anyway. St John’s Wort should also not be taken along with processed meats.
Adaptogenic herbs are an entire class of herbs that help the body better respond to stress. Adaptogens are used by herbalists to interrupt the nasty cycle of chronic stress and to help the body recover from trauma. Adaptogens can be helpful in cases where the depression was triggered by a traumatic event.
There are many adaptogens, and it may take a little while to figure out which one or combination suits your needs best. Here are a few:
- American ginseng
- Schisandra berry
Other relaxing herbs can also be helpful. Many people with depression have difficulty falling asleep. Sleep deprivation makes depression symptoms worsen. The following herbs may help relieve your deep thoughts and worries before bed. It is important to re-establish your healthy circadian rhythm when recovering from depression.
- Milky oat tops
- California poppy
I like to make a tea out of chamomile, milky oat tops, and lemon balm. Then, I add skullcap tincture to the hot tea. Skullcap helps me sleep when my brain is overthinking everything and just won’t quit.
Melatonin, with Caution
It is very important to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm while healing from depression. It is unwise to take melatonin on a regular basis to induce sleep, however. Overuse can lead to a dependence. When I had to reset my internal clock, I used the lowest possible dose and only for two nights. I had crazy, vivid dreams, but it was enough to get me back on a normal sleep schedule.
What do you think?
Depression is so multifaceted, and this is a lot to take in at once. This article only scratched the surface of what is possible for people with depression outside of prescription medication. There will be follow up articles to this. So, please, leave me any questions you want answered in future articles on depression post-SHTF in the comments section.
Cat Ellis is an herbalist, massage therapist, midwifery student, and urban homesteader from New England. She keeps bees, loves gardening and canning, and practice time at the range. She teaches herbal skills on her website, Herbal Prepper. Cat is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, and the author of two books, Prepper’s Natural Medicine and Prepping for a Pandemic.