Embracing your primitive nature can help in fight against depression

June 4, 2009

He doesn't care for the term "caveman therapy." But Stephen Ilardi, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, has turned to our hunter-gatherer ancestors for clues about how to best combat major depressive disorder.

Further, Ilardi fingers our modern, industrialized lifestyle as the key culprit behind the burgeoning epidemic, which continues to worsen despite decades of sharp increases in pharmaceutical consumption.

"A century ago, according to the best epidemiological evidence we have, the lifetime rate of depressive illness in the U.S. was about 1 percent," said Ilardi. "The rate now stands at 23 percent. So we've had roughly a 20-fold increase over the course of a century. Since World War II there's been roughly a 10-fold increase. And a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade."

Published June 1, Ilardi's book, "The Depression Cure" (Da Capo Lifelong Books), is based on research suggesting that depression can be treated effectively by helping people reclaim healing habits from a more primitive way of life. In fact, Ilardi thinks this may be a superior approach than modern psychotherapy or antidepressant drugs, which typically work for only about half the patients who try them.

The KU researcher heads a large treatment study, dubbed the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change project, which calls for patients to adopt six healing elements from the ancient past: consuming more omega-3 fatty acids; using engaging activity to combat rumination; getting regular sunlight exposure; increasing physical exercise; connecting more with others socially; and getting increased (and healthier) sleep.

"As a species, humans were never designed for the pace of modern life," said Ilardi. "We're designed for a different time — a time when people were physically active, when they were outside in the sun for most of the day, when they had extensive social connections and enjoyed continual face time with their friends and loved ones, when they experienced very little social isolation, when they had a much different diet, when they got considerably more sleep and when they had much less in the way of a relentless, demanding, stress-filled existence."

Many elements of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle are robustly antidepressant, Ilardi said. In fact, the KU psychology professor mused that if the neurological benefits of exercise alone could be concentrated into a pill, it would become the best-selling, most-effective antidepressant ever marketed.

In addition to positive results from his own ongoing research study, Ilardi points to low rates of depression among contemporary peoples whose lifestyles mirror those of our ancestors. The American Amish, for example, have rates of depressive illness far lower than that of the broader American population. Likewise, anthropologist Edward Schieffelin observed that the Kaluli people of the New Guinea highlands — whose day-to-day existence of foraging and gardening is akin to that of our remote ancestors — are almost completely free of depressive illness.

For Ilardi, such findings are conclusive that depression primarily stems from modern living: social isolation, fast-food-laden diets, physical inactivity, sleep deprivation and less exposure to the outdoors.

Indeed, one in four Americans will experience depression during their lifetime. Ilardi asserted that depression is that largest single cause of work-related disability, one that increases a person's lifelong risk of heart disease, of some types of cancer and many forms of inflammatory illness. The psychology expert said depression can even become neurotoxic, leading to brain damage by suppressing levels of a key neural growth hormone needed to repair and maintain brain tissue.

The KU researcher said his passion for curing depression is personal.

"I've seen three of my own family members battle this illness, and I don't think anyone can encounter depression up close without gaining a greater sense of compassion for those who are suffering in its grip," he said. "It's something that hits very close to home for me and probably for many others. Virtually everyone knows someone with this affliction."

Source: University of Kansas

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

New study suggests that reduced insurance coverage for mental health treatment increases costs for the seriously ill

July 19, 2017
Higher out-of-pocket costs for mental health care could have the unintended consequence of increasing the use of acute and involuntary mental health care among those suffering from the most debilitating disorders, a Harvard ...

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 05, 2009
Makes sense. The only thing is, how is the modern office drone supposed to suddenly switch gears and live the cave man life? Move to a commune?
not rated yet Jun 05, 2009
I'd rather be an unhappy Human Being than a happy animal.
5 / 5 (3) Jun 05, 2009
You can change your entire lifestyle to one that isn't in line with the requirements of modern living and spend a fortune doing so, or you could just smoke a joint.

I'll go with the latter.
5 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2009
"A century ago, according to the best epidemiological evidence we have, the lifetime rate of depressive illness in the U.S. was about 1 percent," said Ilardi. "The rate now stands at 23 percent. So we've had roughly a 20-fold increase over the course of a century. Since World War II there's been roughly a 10-fold increase. And a recent study found the rate of depression has more than doubled in just the past decade."


This has bad science written all over it. Does this guy really think that in 1909, prior to the establishment of modern psychology and neurology, people were going to get themselves diagnosed and registered as depressives?

In 1990, only .000001% of households in the world had an internet connection. Today that number is closer to 90%...what's caused this sudden internet addiction epidemic when in the past we used to live so addiction-free???

p.s. I agree with Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2009
Exactly. Just as previous studies produced statistical evidence of increases in cancer rates; later it was shown the rates were attributed to better diagnostic testing, earlier testing, increased vigilance and increased access with better identification of at risk patients.

This along with many other 'studies' fail to account for improvements in the ability to identify, observe and measure in different scientific disciplines.

That being said, western societies have defined 'success' in terms of wealth, power as well as what is productive/useful. Those who do not meet that criteria must cope with the perceptions and judgment of others. As social creatures, this can produce self image problems that could be a source for depressive states among larger segments of populations. Risk taking has become more acceptable and profound in seeking that success/stability/reward with consequences for failure more difficult to assess.

As the reality of our consumer driven economy produces more who are left out or whose 'success' is limited, I expect more will seek intervention for depression. A frenetic society which does not allow time for family obligations, personal and individual interests/growth as well time for rest and adequate sleep, may also be a factor.

Lastly, the human condition is that of yin and yang which is seen in literature throughout the ages and in every culture.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.