There’s a deluge of books for sale about depression–and while many offer up the word “natural” in their pitch and even speak of “healing,” few have the bravado to suggest a cure.  I’m glad Dr. Stephen Ilardi took the risk and put that word front and center, landing us in an exciting new world where serious deliberations about trouncing this mood disorder are possible. 

I’ve been growing numb to the term “recovery,” how about you?  It seems to placate, as if to imply a getting-by, a coping-with, a way to feel a bit better while you interminably have depression, are depressed…masking or managing the pain. While depression defines you. While you stay on your meds and obey your doctor.

“Recovery” sounds like so much less than taking one’s mind firmly back from days of torture, let alone re-balancing the person into wholeness.

It could be argued that “cure” comes from that reductionistic model of healing that views disease as a villain to annihilate.  It’s been done: think smallpox.  But in mental health, have we ever said “cure?”  Produced the science or the treatments anywhere near “cure?”  Pharma knows they don’t offer it, nor would they profit from it. That’s their dollars and sense point of view.

I have always liked the word “abolish,” because it takes “mental illness” beyond the medical scope, into realms where it’s otherwise propped and slyly promoted:  realms where stigma endures, be it towards the homeless, sensitive souls and underachievers, wild children or women.  I do not believe these populations are not hurting though, unassailed as they are by nutrient deficiencies, food intolerances, metal poisoning, toxins, and sick lifestyles that respond to holistic healing.  And they aren’t the only ones. But for now: one thing at a time. If we “cure,” we abolish. 

Stephen Ilardi did two things that people looking for a cure do.  One, he reviewed all the available scientific literature so far. Two, he thought about people through the lenses of history and anthropology–he reached beyond the confines of modernity, and that’s a brave leap (which he would probably call the facts of neuroscience).  

The third maneuever he’s not finished with, but you’ll find him reflecting throughout the book:  does the “The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs” really work?  Are there exceptions? What if it doesn’t abolish depression–how do you tweak, refine, or enlarge the program?  In other words, the Cure has been proven for most, but is still a work in progress.  

Ilardi’s book gives the skinny how you want to hear it:  the tone is that of a patient coach-friend who also happens to be a clinician and academic. The science is ample and the test subjects for his “TLC” (Therapeutic Lifestyle Change) program have been many, their responses thoroughly documented.

I suppose one could say I’m cured. I can still be pushed to the edge of depression by lack of sleep, migraine (due to food sensitivies), or chronic stress–but I know what to do, and I won’t get caught in the net for days, weeks, or months again.  I also dealt with generalized anxiety disorder and borderline-type behavior for decades, and those affflictions–as plaguing, debilitating, restricting facts of life–are gone too. I didn’t get here through allopathic medicine but by listening to my body, and understanding the multiple interrelated causes involved in my experience, emotions, and physiology. 

Yet Ilardi’s book has enriched me with its encouragement, and things I didn’t know about exercise, fish oil and daylight–which I thought I had down pat. Still, I have to say that what I like most is the premise on which he bases the program. But first, here are the Magnificent Six:    

  • Omega 3 fatty acids, via fish oil (options for vegetarians discussed)
  • Restorative sleep
  • Exercise (not as much as you think)
  • Social support
  • Engaging activity (my take:  follow your bliss, do what you love)
  • Use a light box or bask in proper sunlight exposure

And why would all of this work?  Listen to the author:

The human body was never designed for the modern post-industrial environment. Until about twelve thousand years ago–when people invented farming and began domesticating livestock–everyone on the planet made their living by hunting and foraging for food. People lived as hunter-gatherers for the vast majority of human history.

And our genes still reflect this history: They’ve changed very little since the days of our hunter-gatherer forbears. Oour genes are still beautifully calibrated to that ancient environment and are still buiding–in effect–Stone Age bodies. Unfortunately, when Stone Age body meets modern environment, the health consequences can be disastrous. ( p. 6)

We also hear about how modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes have virtually no depression, ditto the Amish. How in the Third World, the rate of it is a fraction compared to industrialized countries.  Ilardi assets that depression is “ten times higher today than it was just two generations ago,” and notes that of course the collective gene pool just can’t mutate that fast.

This point’s not arguable: the human organism hasn’t changed, modernity has changed us, body and mind.  We are sick, sad, lonely, without energy or vision. My only complaint with this book is that it doesn’t go far enough, but it is certainly poised to do so. The next “Step” I hope the author will commend is detoxification.

The daily assault of water and air pollutants, pesticides, flame retardants, industrial solvents and so on have mental and behavioral consequences that shape the construct we call “depression. ” Not to mention the common toxins we imbibe consciously:  tobacco, alcohol, sugar, artifical sweeteners refined/processed foods, caffeine, prescription medications and OTC drugs.  

We know that these things singly if not in combo affect adrenaline and cortisol, block insulin or make for insulin resistance, damage cells, whack metabolism and hormones plus sabotage the aging process. 

In turn, adrenal fatigue, diabestes, sleep apnea, autoimmunity, thyroid dysfunction and a host of other conditions can and do cause depression. 

Meanwhile, any attitudes that reduce stigma toward “mental illness” are needed. Voila: let’s be kinder to our hunter-gatherer selves. If we’re not built for this runaway stress and post-industrial wasteland, we can stop looking down on those who stagger under the demands to be affluent, overworked, sleepless and so mobile there’s no room for community or friends.

But  must we point our lives toward merely coping with this assault?  Is this the “cure”–natural ways to protect our body-minds so that we might continue the despoiling of the planet?  In other words, is becoming drug-free enough?

It’s that old saw about personal versus corporate responsibility, and no one expects depressed persons to rally against the likes of the chemical manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and food industries–tacitly supported by a “mental health” profession that looks the other way.  So we continue to talk about “lifestyle changes” when perhaps we should be talking about so-called mental illness in terms of planetary changes.

As an optimist though, I like to think that once “cured,” folks will reflect.  Hmmm…I’m a Stone Age body in a world gone mad. What can I do to bring back the paradise that surely my ancestors knew? 

We need both: accessible how-to for individuals intent on lifestyle change, and a healthful, truthful response from industry.  “Back to the Paleolithic!” is a fine consciousness-raising cry, but what does it mean toward regaining our natural minds?

At the risk of using another overworked term, we must envision a green mental wellness effort that takes that fine four-letter word, CURE, not only to heart but to the larger tasks at hand.  It can seem like that will be the journey of an arduous thousand miles, but read Steve Ilardi’s book and you will be six powerful steps toward getting there.