Depression is an illness that is still taboo in our society. The reluctance to discuss depression or to even consider it an illness is surprising considering that statistics published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that after HIV/Aids, depression is likely to impact society the most by the year 2030. It is already a common ailment worldwide and affects an estimated 350 million people. WHO statistics also reveal that India is one of the most `depressed’ countries in the world with a whopping 36 percent of the population suffering from it.
Depression symptoms and intensity vary from person to person. A depressive episode can be mild, minor or manic. A person suffering from depression may exhibit loss of interest and enjoyment in daily life. Exhaustion and fatigue causes depression patients to withdraw from social interactions. Other symptoms include disturbed sleep, feeling of guilt, lack of concentration and low self esteem. A disturbed pattern of eating is also noticeable. People suffering from depression may either indulge in binge eating or may suffer from eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
One of the misconceptions about depression is that it is a ‘modern ailment’ brought about by modern lifestyles. This may be true to a certain extent; but depression did certainly exist among earlier generations. Physicians in Kerala, where principles of Ayurveda are ingrained in day to day living, have several treatment protocols for depression. Given that depression statistics are alarming, we asked the Acharya a few questions on how Ayurveda deals with this illness.
Q: Does Ayurveda recognize depression as an illness that can affect anybody?
Acharya: Depression is known as Vishada or Avashada in Ayurveda. Vishada means poison while Avashada implies disturbance. Ayurveda has long recognized that depression can cause not just mental but also physical imbalances in the body. The Ayurveda treatise Sushruta Samhita describes Vishada as a mental disorder. Depression is also mentioned in ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata. During the battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna is described as having a long despondent episode described as the ‘vishada yoga.’
Q: How does Ayurveda explain depression?
Acharya: Gunas and Doshas determine an individual’s well being. The Agnis and Malas in the body are also important. The three Gunas are Sattwa, Rajas and Tamas, while the Doshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The balance between them will determine the individual’s physical and mental constitution. When there is a predominance of one Guna or Dosha, it can cause a mental or physical ailment.
The three Gunas control the working of the mind. Their energies power our conscious and sub-conscious mind. Sattwa refers to intelligence and virtuosity. Rajas controls our reaction to change and turbulence. Tamas describes the quality of darkness inherent in all of us. It implies darks moods and a lack of faith in goodness. Depression usually indicates reduced Sattvik energy and aggravation of Rajasik and Tamasik energies. The weakening of Ojas – the essence of life – also results in depression. In fact, some Ayurveda practitioners distinguish between the depression caused by depletion of Ojas and imbalance of the Gunas. When the body is unable to retain the necessary levels of Ojas, the individual may suffer from anxiety, reduced sex drive, lack of energy, irritability and lack of self-esteem. On the other hand sadness, despair, and lack of interest in life indicate that Rajasik and Tamasik influences are overwhelming the mind.
Q: What treatment does Ayurveda prescribe for patients suffering from depression?
Acharya: Ayurveda’s treatment of depression is holistic. It covers therapies, medication and lifestyle changes. Practitioners advise that simple lifestyle changes like opting for healthier food options and introducing physical and mental discipline can help cope with depression. For example, yoga and meditation can get the body and mind under control. These ancient therapies lighten the soul too as it leads to introspection and therefore a better understanding of the self. This helps to deal with symptoms like anxiety and low self esteem. In addition, basic changes in daily routine can help. Get up early and go to sleep early. Good sleep is essential for emotional well being. It rejuvenates the mind and allows the body to shore up its defenses once again to face the coming day. Regular exercise – even in a mild form – is important to treat depression. Exercise helps the body remove the pent up anger or blocked emotions. It also releases ‘happy hormones’ or endorphins that elevate the mood.
Q: What are the other therapies suggested by Ayurveda?
Acharya: A daily abhyanga – self massage – is very effective in treating depression. It calms the mind, strengthens the body and eases the mood. Abhyanga also releases toxins trapped in the muscles and helps the body to eject it. The tactile stimulation of the massage has an emotional impact and calms anxiety and stress. A massage also balances the Vata Dosha.
Q: Are there any specific herbal treatments that can help cure depression?
Acharya: There are several herbal formulations that are used to treat depression. The herbs commonly used are brahmi, garlic, shatavari and vacha. Brahmi improves memory and vacha enhances lucidity of the mind. Garlic has mood elevating benefits. Shatavari is an adaptogenic and helps the body adjust to stress. Ashwagandha and basil are also very effective. They reinforce the body’s resistance and help to cope with mental stress. This improves emotional health. Arjuna Myrobalans helps in the body’s rejuvenation mechanism and replaces weak cells thus improving overall strength and resistance. Kitchen ingredients like turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, rose petals/water, celery seeds, licorice, nutmeg and gooseberry are also helpful in coping with depression.