Home Science Biology TedTalks: Professor Stephen Ilardi On Curing Depression

TedTalks: Professor Stephen Ilardi On Curing Depression


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Though not all Tedtalks are as relevant to Combat Sports as Chatri Sityodtong’s “Achieving Greatness in Life Through Martial Arts“, they’re still full of wisdom and science that we can all relate to. Twenty minutes of eloquent and concise presentation — piquing an interest and satisfying a curiosity; sometimes they’re even life changing.

In my opinion, Dr. Illardi lecture is one such talk.  Depression is becoming increasingly widespread. Amongst many other characterizations, depressive disorders can include motor retardation, memory and attentional deficits, and neurotoxicity.

“It robs people of their sleep, energy, focus, concentration, memory, sex drive, ability to expeirence the pleasures of life. It can even rob people of their will to live, and I’ll tell you why. We now know that depression lights up the pain circuitry of the brain — to such an extent that most clinically depressed people will tell you that it’s torment, torture.”

People will start looking at death as a means of escape. Depression is the main driver of suicides which now claim over 1 million lives every year worldwide.”

Twenty Years of Clinical Research:

Bad News: Depression is now a global epidemic. In the US, nearly 1 in 4 Americans will experience depression by age 75, “The rate of depression seems to be increasing and increasing; every successive birth cohort is having higher rates of depression than the one preceded.

Oldest Americans vs. newest American Adults — younger Americans (18-29), 25% have experience depression. Ilardi, “if we extrapolate that line, by the time they are middle age, their depression rate will be about 50%…Depression, left unchecked can cause brain damage. “

So what causes depression? As proven by many studies, depression is really complicated: “biological, psychological, cultural, social, behavioral — but beyond all the complexities there’s a common underlying pathway — a primary driver and trigger — the brain’s runaway stress response.” 

Fight or flight response: “designed to aid ancestors to aid them in dangers — a costly response. For many Americans and people around the world, the stress response goes on for days, months, and even years at a time. In the long run, it’s incredibly toxic to the body and brain. It’s incredibly disruptive to neural circuits to the brain.”

“It actually triggers an inflammatory response throughout the body and brain. This is what we’ve learned about depression: an inflamed brain is a depressed brain — this is really intriguing because a number of illnesses (diabetes, atherosclerosis, asthma, obesity, cancer (many forms), and depression) these are all inflammatory illnesses that are epidemic and virtually non-existent in modern day aboriginal groups.

“Depression is a disease of civilization — a disease of lifestyle. An anthropological study done on an Aboriginal group called the Kaluli showed that out of 2000 people, they had 1 marginal case of clinical depression out of 2000. This is about 100 times lower than ours.”

“They lead a hard life. Compared to us, they have high rates of infant mortality, high rates of parasitic infection, violent death, but they don’t become clinical depressed. Whats protecting them? Lifestyle… They live a lifestyle very similar to our ancestors… 99.9% of the human and pre-human experience was lived in a hunter-gatherer context… we’re still well adapted for that type of lifestyle… But since the industrial revolution is termed radical and environmental mutation. It’s as if modern American and western life is radically discontinuous from everything that came before.”

“There’s a profound mismatch between the genes we carry — the body and brains that they’re building and the world we find ourselves in. We were never designed for this — the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food-laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”

The result? An epidemic of depressive illness.

Good news:

Depression is a foe that can be defeated.

Medication: Dr. Ilardi is not anti-medication. Over the last 20 years, usage has gone up over 300%, but in the interim depression continues to increase — “1 in 9 Americans over the age of 12 is currently taking an anti-depressant. 1 in 5 has tried it at some point. “

The answer, he believes, is a change of lifestyle.

Therapeutic Life-Style Change: 6 Ways To Tame The Stress Response

In his TedTalk Dr.Ilardi only discussed 3: the other three are sunlight, sleep, and rumination. 

1. Exercise: “Many people have trouble making it happen… exercise is literally medicine — it changes the brain and body in beneficial ways than any pill you can take… I’ll say something even more controversial — if you can take a pill that has the neurological and psychology effects — the neural-signalling, anti-aging effects, mental clarity enhancing effects… Call me crazy, but I believe that pill would become the best selling drug of all time. I think people would pay any price to have it.

The problem — we don’t exercise: CTC tells us 60% of all American adults get no regular physical activity. “If we look at hunter gatherer groups, they get 4 or more hours of vigorous physical activity everyday — they look like elite athletes even in their middle-age and beyond.”

Theres a Conundrum To Exercising: Exercise is not natural — we are designed to be physically adapt in the service of adaptive goals — we are not designed to have motivation to “exercise (e.g. on a treadmill)”. To solve this conundrum, in his treatment program it’s natural and social: walking, “Brisk-walking will get your heart rate to 120-150 — it’s enough to enhance serotonin and dopamine circuits — at 30 minutes a week it won against Zoloft (medication).”

2. Omega-3: The hunter-gatherers got their omega 3s and 6s in the optimal balance. Roughly 1:1 – 2:1. “But the modern with American diet riddled with fast food, process food, and grain-fed meat is 17:1. It’s heavily inflammatory and heavily depressant.

This suggests to us that if we can supplement with omega-3s it could be anti-depressant: over a dozen controlled reserach trials have shown this to be the case. The best research shows that EPA, at a dose of 1000-2000 mg has shown to be anti-depressant… but it’s not just an anti-depressant, it’s remarkably health-promoting in many different ways.”

*Note that its EPA mgs, not just fish oil mgs. Dr. Ilardi recommends getting pills that include EPA and DHA ( meaning it comes from natural fish oil sources). Studies that found omega-3 “doesn’t help with depression” only consumed DHA. EPA must be 1000-2000 mgs to have anti-depressive effects. 

3. Social Connection: “We’re designed as a very social specie, we’re designed to connect. Did you know that face time, time in the physical presence of our loved ones actually put a break on our stress response? Did you know our ancestors spent all day and everyday in the company of their loved ones and friends? Think about the extensive face time they shared with people that matter most.

Now think about what we’ve done, we’ve traded face time for screen time, and the result is devastating. We’re born to connect, we need that connection.”

Results: “We’ve got lots of good data and the results have exceeded our wildest expectations. Most of the patients that come to us have tried meds and they haven’t gotten well. Most of them have tried traditional therapy and it hasn’t been the answer. The majority has gotten well as they’ve been willing to change the way they live.”

Sounds like common sense? Not quite. In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Ilardi said:

“People need to know how much sunlight is most effective, and at which time of day. And taking supplements, for example, is a complex business. You need anti-oxidants to ensure that the fish oil is effective, as well as a multivitamin. Without someone spelling it out, most people would never do it.” Ilardi practises the programme himself. He’s never been depressed, he tells me (Jake Wallis Simons of The Guardian, but it increases his sense of wellbeing and reduces his absentmindedness “

You can find Dr. Ilardi’s extensive presentations and articles for free on the net. Here is a more extensive presentation on all 6 factors: University Of Kansas Therapeutic Lifestyle Change for Depression. Stay tuned as I look more into these topics and experiment with some of his suggestions!