Hacking is in my blood. True story – I have a master’s degree in hacking—Information Security. As a teenager, I once locked the teachers out of a school computer system. They knew it was me and I got off by teaching them how I did it.
Almost two years ago I decided to seek help for anxiety and depression. The powers that be all sang a similar song, telling me to go on antidepressants and get some therapy. After some research, I decided that antidepressants weren’t for me. If you use them, totally cool, I don’t judge. But I took getting well as an opportunity to experiment, a programming challenge.
One of the first things I did was to get a hormone and neurotransmitter panel done by my naturopathic doctor. This was a good move as my neurotransmitters were screwed up, but I also had severe adrenal fatigue.
I learned that depression, in particular, is not just a chemical imbalance. There isn’t substantial evidence in support of chemical imbalance theory of depression. This may be why only about 60% or people respond to SSRI antidepressants. We can, however, observe physical differences in the brains of individuals with depression. So, for me, the best explanation of depression is that it is a complex phenomenon which has structural, chemical, and psychological components.
If you get relief from antidepressants, fantastic. But psychiatrists will tell you that long-term results require combining them with therapy. I believe that this is because changing the mechanism of depression involves neuroplasticity – creating new and more efficient neural pathways. I also believe that our states and moods are not confined strictly to our brains. We know, for example, that the gut can affect brain function. We are aware that the interaction between things like our hypothalamus, adrenal, and pituitary glands is a complex series of feedback loops that regulate all kinds of body functions.
Human beings are complex systems made up of complex systems. Moods are complex states.
I’m happy to report that my experimentation has been fruitful. I am so much better today than I ever was. And I want to share the things that have worked for me. They may or may not work for you, and you should always check with your doctor before making any changes to what you’re doing.
The following is a list of “hacks” that I have used with great success. I have not included anything I haven’t tried myself, didn’t work, or worked inconsistently.
The right kind and amount of exercise
We all know we need to exercise and that exercise feels good. I did discover something, however, that there is a such a thing as exercise-induced depression. I get it. I would work out so intensely using high-intensity interval training, that I depleted my blood sugar and glycogen stores. When this happens, my body dumps cortisol into my system which causes a disruption in serotonin.
Not everybody is susceptible to this, but some people are. If you find yourself getting depressed immediately after exercise, tone down the intensity and make sure you fuel up properly beforehand.
For me, finding the right intensity and length of exercise is crucial.
I take some supplements which have been helpful for my mood. I will say that these are monitored and regularly adjusted by a naturopathic doctor. I would avoid doing this on my own, or if I was also taking a prescription antidepressant.
There is a real danger of having too much serotonin, so check with a medical professional for sure.
The things that have been most helpful to me have contained neurotransmitter and hormone precursors. These are amino acids which are the building blocks for serotonin, dopamine, and other hormones. I also take a supplement to manage cortisol at night – important for sleep. And I make sure to get vitamin D, and methylated B vitamins.
Fish oil is also extremely helpful. It is interesting to me that some helpful protocols are anti-inflammatory. Perhaps inflammation and mood may be a fruitful path for future research.
Bulletproof coffee is a coffee recipe popularized by author and entrepreneur Dave Asprey. It’s controversial because of some of the claims made by Asprey, who sells his versions of the ingredients at a huge markup. It consists of a cup of coffee with two tablespoons of grass-fed butter and MCT oil. MCT is short from medium-chain-triglyceride, and it’s a type of oil made (usually) from processing coconut oil. It’s an incredibly healthy form of fat that has been used in research for things like restoring cognitive function to Alzheimer’s patients and treating people with digestive disorders.
So, hype and unfounded research claims aside, I like to start my day with a cup of the stuff. The caffeine provides a boost, while the healthy fats give me some energy. I do notice a cognitive boost on days when I drink it. I do not purchase Asprey’s products. I don’t think they are superior to regular coffee or MCT oil.
It’s important to get grass-fed butter as it has a higher content of butyric acid. Butyric acid is a fatty acid which has been well researched and has numerous health benefits. Besides being great for your gut health, it has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Gut health and anti-inflammatory effect you say? I sense a pattern.
Pronounced Chee-Kung, Qigong is an ancient Chinese health practice that involves movement and posture. You might think of it as being a little like Tai Chi and yoga had a baby.
In a review of the , the National Institutes of Health identified over 160 positive health effects of the practice. Both anxiety and depression were significantly improved in the studies they reviewed.
Thirty minutes of qigong practice for me is both relaxing and invigorating. I feel healthier and happier when I do it.
Whole Body Vibration
WBV is the arguably the costliest intervention I’ve tried. I don’t live near a facility with a full-body vibration platform, so I had to purchase one – which cost several hundred dollars. Still, it works for me, so I include it here.
You stand, sit, lie on, or lean against a platform which is being mechanically vibrated. Your body has to rapidly adjust, many times per second for you just to stay balanced on it. You can also do exercises, like squats, lunges, and pushups on the platform.
These platforms are used for fitness, mainly, as they challenge the neuromuscular system. They are a favorite tool in Eastern Europe where a lot of research has been conducted I do not precisely know how the mechanism works on mood, but it seems to help a lot. If I had to guess, I think there is a way through stimulating the motor neurons that releases trauma held in the body.
Shaking, for example, is a natural reaction to a traumatic event exhibited by most mammals. There are trauma releasing exercises which are designed to fatigue and cause the psoas muscles to shake and release tension.
I’m Batman – at least that’s what I tell my kids when I’m hanging upside down. I use an inversion table regularly to hang, and it’s especially helpful for anxiety. I also like the way it decompresses my spine after sitting in front of a computer all day. Inversion has been shown to help mood, anxiety, in particular.
You do not have to purchase an inversion table to invert. You can do inversions in yoga. Standing on your head is one way, but may be too extreme for some. There are ways to work up to headstands – but anything that has your head lower than your torso will work. Downward facing dog pose from yoga is one such pose that most people can do.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable of all the hacks, cryotherapy is getting cold. Specifically, I wear and ice-vest for forty-five minutes to an hour to drop my body temperature. Some facilities have cryo-chambers, where they cool you quickly using super-cold nitrogen gas. You could also walk around outside in the winter.
Cryotherapy reduces inflammation (again) and creates some positive physical effects. One of those is that it dumps endorphins into your system – you know, those feel good natural opiates. I find the endorphin effect lasts around eight hours.
Once, I was experiencing some pretty severe anxiety and put on my cryo-vest for an hour. Within minutes it felt like the tension was draining away. Afterward, it never actually came back at all, and I felt good the rest of the day. Cryo is currently one of my favorite hacks.
Hugs, massage, petting puppies – all lower stress and release oxytocin. Sex is, of course, a winner here. Get some good, healthy human touch in your life. We are wired to be nurtured by contact.
Have some sex. Hug somebody. Get a puppy. Get a massage.
Find what works for you
My goal here is not to be prescriptive. I don’t think mental health is a one-size-fits-all affair. You need to find what works for you. My hope is that I’ve given you some things to think about, perhaps try, and some motivation to search for what works for you.
Photo credit: Pixabay