Can Depression be Prevented?

If you've been sad or "blue" due to a prolonged illness, the passing of a friend of family member, or other unfortunate circumstances, you've probably experienced some of the symptoms of depression: prolonged feelings of grief or hopelessness; an inability to concentrate; changes in your appetite or eating habits; or excessive fatigue, irritability and restlessness (to name a few).

For some, challenging life experiences can lead to depressive symptoms, but in other cases, people can become depressed without experiencing a specific triggering event. In fact, because some symptoms of depression overlap with symptoms for many other ailments, people who don't have the stereotypical symptoms of depression may not even realize they are depressed.

Can Depression Ever Be Prevented?
Depression can't be prevented in the same way you can wash your hands to prevent catching a cold. What we know for sure is that depression has many causes, some of which we understand, and some of which we do not. It's a complex illness and your susceptibility to depression is often outside of your control, especially if you have a family history of the disorder. But in many of the same ways you can strengthen your immune system to avoid getting sick, there are certain steps you can take to help reduce your chances of becoming (or staying) depressed.

Here are some simple steps that could bolster your body's "defenses" against depression.

6 Healthy Habits That May Help Prevent Depression

Eat a Balanced, Nutritious Diet
Limiting preventable risk factors, like poor nutrition, is one way to thwart depression. Deficiencies in certain nutrients have been correlated with depression. A 2005 study found that depressed women in their childbearing years tend to be deficient in nutrients like folate, vitamin B-12, iron, zinc and selenium. Other studies have demonstrated a potential link between a lack of Omega-3 fatty acids and depression symptoms.

Maintaining healthy eating habits and consuming enough calories to ensure adequate nutrient intake is an important step in keeping your body and mind functioning optimally. Although no vitamin supplement can "fix" a poor diet, taking a general multivitamin/mineral supplement may also help cover your bases of key nutrients, especially if you are following a reduced calorie diet. (Talk to your doctor if you're depressed and trying to lose weight.)  Learn more about the links between diet and depression

Exercise Regularly
People who don't exercise miss out on the physical and mental benefits of regular activity. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, and also releases feel-good endorphins that boost your mood. Working out even helps regulate your sleep patterns, offers a means of natural pain control, and has even been shown to boost a person's self-confidence.

Although there's little evidence to support a link between a sedentary lifestyle and the development of clinical depression, there is ample evidence that a regular exercise program can be a great addition to a depression treatment plan. And for those with risk factors who hope to prevent depression, working out certainly can't hurt. If you're already depressed, talk to your doctor about using exercise as part of your treatment regimen; studies have shown better treatment outcomes in depressed and/or anxious patients who exercise regularly.

Consider Changing Medications
Certain prescription drugs, including some birth control pills and beta blockers, have known side effects that mirror depression symptoms. For example, if a medication makes you feel listless, unusually tired or wipes out your energy levels, it may appear that you've become depressed when, in fact, your medication is causing these symptoms.

Ask your physician if depression is a possible side effect when she's prescribing new medications for you, especially if you've dealt with depression in the past or have a family history. Switching or choosing an alternative medication could still give you the treatment you need for other conditions—but help you feel a lot better.

Note: Talk to your doctor before stopping any medications you are currently taking. In some cases, depression as a side effect can't be avoided, but your doctor can help you find other ways of dealing with your depressive symptoms while still maintaining your necessary medication routine.

Avoid Alcohol
For some people, alcohol is a way to escape from depressive symptoms or challenging life circumstances, but it's well understood that those effects are fleeting and that drinking can actually lead to more problems than it temporarily seems to solve.

This is how it happens: Drinking alcohol or using other addictive substances, increases levels of the "feel-good" neurotransmitter dopamine. The more dopamine we have, the more we move toward the substance that makes our brains release it. Over time, it takes more and more to achieve the same dopamine release.

But what does that have to do with depression? Low levels of dopamine mimic the symptoms of depression. By indulging in alcohol or other substances regularly, you're setting yourself up for a dopamine crash—and depression symptoms—when it's no longer in your system.

As researchers sift through current evidence surrounding alcohol's role in depression in humans, consider limiting your intake of alcohol and refrain from using illicit drugs, which can cause dependence and other physical and mental problems. If you're feeling down, take a break from the bar, or order a virgin cocktail. Your brain may thank you.

Cultivate Positivity
Research suggests that the way we see the world can influence our susceptibility to depression. If you are prone to pessimism, low self-esteem and/or anxious thoughts, you may be more likely to become depressed than people who tend to see the glass as half full.

We don't completely understand the relationship between pessimistic tendencies and depression, but one thing is clear: The symptoms of depression correlate with a negative mindset. Psychologists call it having a “negative attributional style,” which is another way of saying you believe that bad things that happen are caused by you, while positive events are flukes. Adjusting this mindset has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression, so why not take a proactive stance?
Practicing a more positive mindset has been shown to help people develop resiliency, and may even prevent impending depression in the face of stressful life events. And the truth is, that you weren't "born" as either a positive or a negative person. With practice, you can change your outlook. If you're feeling down, bump up your health and well-being by venting to a friend with a positive bent who can help you interpret your lows as unhappy coincidences and your highs as successes rather than simple good luck. Try listing five positives about the day before bed, and force yourself to counter negative thoughts with more heartening alternatives.

Because there are still unanswered questions about depression's causes, it's possible to do "everything right" and still become depressed. Although it may seem easy to blame yourself, depression is never your fault.

If you're worried about becoming depressed, tweaking your mindset to be more positive, your body to be more active and your relationships to be more supportive, you're doing a lot to keep depression at bay and boost your resiliency should it actually return.

Alinne Z. Barrera, Leandro D. Torres, Ricardo F. Munoz. "Prevention of depression: The state of the science at the beginning of the 21st Century." International Review of Psychiatry, December 2007; 19(6): 655–670.

Pim Cuijpers, PhD, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, MD, PhD, and Charles F. Reynolds, III, MD. "Preventing Depression." The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2012 March 14; 307(10): 1033–1034.

Bodner LM, Wisner KL. "Nutrition and Depression," Biological Psychiatry, 2005 Nov 1;58(9):679-85.

University Health Center at Berkeley, "Clinical Depression,", accessed on June 10, 2013.

Harvard Men's Health Watch, "Benefits of exercise – reduces stress, anxiety, and helps fight depression,", accessed on June 10, 2013.

Stanford Medicine, "New research sheds light on connection between dopamine and depression symptoms,", accessed on June 10, 2013.

Daniel R. Strunk, Howard Lopez, Robert J. DeRubeis. "Depressive symptoms are associated with unrealistic negative predictions of future life events." Behavior Research and Therapy, 44 (2006) 861–882.

Brookhaven, U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Laboratory, "Turning Off Alcohol Abuse,", accessed on June 10, 2013.

Laura Pinsky, "Depression and Medication,", accessed June 10, 2013.