Archive for Wednesday, June 1, 2005

KU study exploring treatment for depression without drugs

Caveman’ plan touts mood boost

June 1, 2005


Behave more like a caveman.

That's the advice of a Kansas University professor who thinks he's found a medication-free way to beat depression, a major illness that has afflicted about 20 percent of Americans.

And Steve Ilardi's cure includes mimicking the habits of our hunting and gathering ancestors of 2 million years ago.

"The results have been very encouraging," the KU psychology professor said about his regimen.

Ilardi, 41, argues that depression has become epidemic - "One in five Americans have experienced an episode of major depressive illness," he said - because our brains and bodies aren't designed for our 21st century lifestyles.

"The human brain has been sculpted by 2 million years of life within a hunter-gatherer context. Agriculture has only been around for 10,000 years, and it's only been since World War I that we've become truly toxic," Ilardi said. "We were never designed to be so sedentary, so socially isolated."

Depression, he said, is the evolutionary consequence of a person's brain being out of synch with their social environment.

"There's a mismatch," Ilardi said.

Ilardi has come up with a six-part regimen designed to reconnect depression sufferers with their hunter-gatherer roots - more exercise, more sunlight, more sleep, more fish oil, less isolation and fewer negative thoughts.

He calls his system Therapeutic Lifestyle Change or TLC.

Kansas University psychology graduate students, from left, Jennifer Prohaska, Leslie Karwoski, Andy Lehman, Chris Heath and professor Stephen Ilardi are working on an alternative to drug therapy for treating depression. The program uses aerobic exercise, light therapy and other treatments to combat depression in people who aren't responding to prescription drugs. The group is pictured at the KU Student Recreation Center in this 2005 file photo.

Kansas University psychology graduate students, from left, Jennifer Prohaska, Leslie Karwoski, Andy Lehman, Chris Heath and professor Stephen Ilardi are working on an alternative to drug therapy for treating depression. The program uses aerobic exercise, light therapy and other treatments to combat depression in people who aren't responding to prescription drugs. The group is pictured at the KU Student Recreation Center in this 2005 file photo.

"It's a very active treatment plan," said Leslie Karwoski, a doctoral student who's helping Ilardi. "If you're looking for an easy way out, this isn't it."

The regimen does not include anti-depressants.

"I'm not anti-medication," Ilardi said. "It's just that for a lot of people they don't work - and if they do work, it's short-term. Relapse is a huge issue. So, if you can achieve the superior results long-term without medication, the advantage seems pretty clear."

Promising results

Last semester, Ilardi and Karwoski assembled a group of five adults, all of whom had been diagnosed with severe depression. Some had suffered for at least a year, but all study participants had been depressed at least six months.

The group met about once a week for 15 weeks. Each session lasted between 90 minutes and two hours, during which participants learned about each component of Ilardi's behavior system and figured out how to incorporate them into their lifestyles.

Of the five participants, four "experienced a highly favorable treatment response," Ilardi said, noting that the results beat the 50- to 60-percent response rate for anti-depressants.

Volunteers sought for program

For more information or to apply for participation in Steve Ilardi's depression study group, contact project coordinator Leslie Karwoski, 218-6336 or

Applicants must be:

¢ Between ages 18 and 65.

¢ Live within an hour drive of Lawrence.

¢ Committed to attending 12 early evening sessions over a 15-week period.

¢ Meet diagnosis criteria for clinical depression.

Must not be:

¢ Addicted to alcohol or drugs.

¢ Bipolar or manic depressive.

Deadline for applications: June 10

"Exercise was the hardest part for some people," said Jane, a 27-year-old KU student who took part in the first group. "But for some it was the easiest. It depends."

A new beginning

Jane, who asked not to be identified, said the group gave her hope.

"I'd been depressed off and on for like eight or nine years," she said. "It's horrible. I used to sleep all the time - when I wasn't sleeping, I'd wish I was. I was tired all the time. I couldn't stay interested in anything. I wasn't really anti-social, I just didn't want to be bothered. Nothing was fun."

Now, she said, "I'm happy. I just graduated from KU and I'm really looking forward to moving, finding a job and starting my life."

A second group is now in its seventh week.

"It's doing remarkably well," Ilardi said.

Volunteers sought

Ilardi and Karwoski are looking for adults to take part in two more groups, starting later this month.

It's proving to be a popular undertaking. Ilardi said he and Karwoski received 40 inquiries after the project was recently featured in a Kansas Alumni magazine cover story.

Jane said she, too, has been bombarded with questions from family members and friends.

"It makes so much sense," she said. "Everybody wants to know how they can do it."

A second opinion

Still, there are skeptics who say Ilardi may be underselling the benefits of anti-depressant drugs.

"I'm not being critical - everything he's doing is logical and beneficial," said Dr. Stuart Munro, chairman of the psychiatry department at University of Missouri -Kansas City Medical School.

"Exercise is always recommended," he said. "For some, sunlight is beneficial. And more and more, the literature shows that fish oil can be effective for some."

But medication coupled with "talk therapy" has proven effective and should not be dismissed, Munro said.

"It's an arrow I wouldn't leave in the quiver," he said.

Ilardi said he's aware of the concern expressed by Munro.

"I wouldn't disagree," he said. "The approach we're taking could work in tandem with medication, but, again, medications are not as effective as the public assumes they are, the side effects are often intolerable, and for many, relapse occurs as soon as they stop taking them."


Therapeutic Lifestyle Change or TLC is a treatment for depression based on the idea that the human brain is still wired for life in the Stone Age and altering one's lifestyle is better than relying on medications.

The six TLC essentials:

¢ EXERCISE: Aerobic exercise is a potent antidepressant. Elevate your pulse between 120 to 160 beats per minute for 35 minutes three times weekly.

¢ SLEEP: Chronic sleep deprivation puts one at risk for depression; get 7 or 8 hours nightly.

¢ SUNLIGHT: The brain needs 2,500 lux for 30 to 60 minutes per day. Spend a half hour outdoors on a sunny day or in front of a 10,000 lux light when it is overcast.

¢ EAT FISH: 1,000 milligrams daily of Omega-3 type EPA fatty acids has been shown to relieve depression. It is found in highly concentrated fish oil, also in tuna, mackerel, sardines, lake trout and salmon.

¢ SOCIALIZE: Social support helps prevent depression during major losses. Separation from friends and family is a common trigger for depression.

¢ THINK POSITIVE: Don't dwell on repetitive, negative thoughts. Learn to redirect attention to more engaging activities.


watermelon 12 years, 11 months ago


I was wondering if you are doing any more studies on severe depression and if you need any more volunteers.

Only problem being that I cannot eat fish oil because I am a vegan.

Let me know. Thanks

Lee_Janie 11 years, 4 months ago

Thought this was an interesting concept to spend so much money on. Indeed it is good ideas, common things that most of us just don't do enough of anymore. I think that anytime anyone can do without these drugs that they are better off for it. These medications are dangerous and harmful, mind altering, addictive drugs which cause the following problems:

Drug induced stuttering, Weight gain, Dizziness, Sleeplessness, Restlessness, Anxiety, Diabetes, Racing heart, Heart disorders, Suicide risk in children and adults, Increased risk of birth defects, White Blood Cell Disorders, Convulsions and Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome, Life threatening inflammation of the Pancreas, Illegal sales on the street, Illegal experimentation and addiction to drugs, Glaucoma, Harmful food and drug interactions, Synergistic and Anti synergistic affects, Unnatural and dangerous serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, wrongful misunderstood prescribing , Dyskyntonia, Sudden Deaths, Drug overdoses, Drug induced psychiatric symptoms. So of course anything that we can come up with that is a natural help to emotional problems has to be better then what they are.

Since we also know that there is no answer to the following questions:

  1. Evidence That Clearly Establishes the validity of "schizophrenia" "depression" or other "major mental Illnesses" as biologically-based brain diseases.

  2. Evidence For A Physical Diagnostic Exam such as a scan or test of the brain, blood, urine, genes, etc that can reliably distinguish individuals with these diagnoses (prior to treatment with psychiatric drugs), from individuals without these diagnoses.

  3. Evidence For a Base-line Standard of a neurochemically balanced "normal" personality, against which a neurochemical "imbalance" can be measured and corrected by pharmaceutical means.

  4. Evidence That Any Psychotropic Drug can correct a "chemical imbalance" attributed to a psychiatric diagnoses, and is any thing more than a non-specific alterer of physiology.

  5. Evidence That Any Psychotropic Drug can reliably decrease the likelihood of violence or suicide.

  6. Evidence That Psychotropic Drugs do not in fact increase the overall likelihood of violence and suicide.

from anyone in psychiatry or the government or NAMI then of course the more natural things we can do to feel better the better off we will all be in the long run.

denak 10 years, 9 months ago

Drug therapy combined with talk therapy has been proven to be the best course of treatment for depressed individuals.

This should always be the first line of defense for someone who is depressed.

However, there is no reason people can not incorporate these other things into their regimen as well.

This doesn't have to be an "either or" situation. In fact, it shouldn't.

We have the benefit of all kinds of studies into sleep and sunlight(vitamin D) and other things as well as newer SSRI's, like Lexapro, that have showed great promise in fighting depression.

Combine all of this with talk therapy such as cognitive therapy and we might have just found the winning formula. Dena

cowboy 10 years, 9 months ago

It depresses me , joke , that in modern times like now , joke , that the only treatment covered by major insurance is pretty much the same old talk to a burned out shrink , or take a bunch of meds.

One striking thing was that we would take our severely schizophrenic folks camping in Northern Arizona and they would act like perfect angels , fishing , camping , hallucinating , whatever , you would'nt know immediately that they were "institutionalized crazies".

Having worked in counseling in my younger years I became fairly jaded about the wonders of medicine. I always thought that a few weeks at a nice retreat would work wonders for most , even if there was little counseling involved , get up get taken care of , a bit of nice physical therapy , massage , some hiking exercise , turn off the world for a few weeks , relax , get some rest and some distance from those demons and try to regroup and get a plan of attack to change your outcome.

yeah , but big Pharma wouldn't make any money off that now would they ?

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