Guest article by Sam Hadadi,
With more and more of us leading stressful, frazzled lives, it seems that the threat of depression grows by the day.
Just last year, 9 per cent of Brits took anti-depressants, while it’s thought that a huge 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem every single year1.
It’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Yet from lack of sunshine to chemical imbalances, poor diets and even genetics, no one can pinpoint exactly what it is that triggers the demons in our brain.
With so many of us now suffering from depression, scientists are now pulling on their lab coats to find out more about this monster. What exactly is it that causes depression and why is it becoming more of a problem?
If you want to know what causes depression, then there’s no definitive answer. Most people still believe that it’s triggered by a chemical imbalance in the brain. If you want to get all scientific, then this is basically a shortage of feel-good neurotransmitters (including serotonin) which work to deliver messages from one neuron to another.
However, in reality – and as sufferers of depression will know only too well – this illness is far more complicated.
So, what else could cause these cripplingly low moods that affect your day-to-day life? Well, for starters, some researchers have been looking at faulty brain wiring. In MRIs, depressed brains display lower activity levels in the frontal lobes – the parts of the brain responsible for cognitive processes - and higher levels of activity in the amygdala region of the brain, which is basically fear central.
Many also think that depression could be caused by the loss of volume in parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, which forms the emotional centre of the brain. In fact, the more severe the depression, the greater the loss of brain volume2.
What else? Well, our body’s endocrine system can also cause mood disturbances. Some studies3 have found that depressed patients have faults in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the region that manages the body’s response to stress.
If those theories don’t convince you, then you may sit up and pay attention to this – could depression be an allergic reaction to inflammation?
While it may seem like a brand new idea, the idea of inflammation triggering depression has been lurking in the background for a few years – and it was all decided by scientists realising that a lot of depressive symptoms mimic the way we feel when we’re ill.
In fact, a family of proteins (called cytokines, FYI) which trigger inflammation, sending the body into sickness mode, have been shown to soar during depressive episodes. These cytokines also taper off when we’re feeling less depressed – or at least they do in those suffering from Bipolar.
Need more convincing? Well, perfectly healthy people can become depressed when given a jab that causes a spike in inflammation levels4. Plus there’s the fact that people with inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are more prone to depression than your typical person.
For centuries, experts have always assumed that depression is an imbalance in the mind, a psychological problem that needs to be treated carefully. Yet, if depression really is caused by inflammation, could it be that depression is actually a physical illness? And, if so, could this be used to develop new treatments, particularly for those who don’t respond well to anti-depressants?
So far, a few clinical trials have found that adding anti-inflammatory medicines to anti-depressants both improves symptoms and boosts the amount of people who respond to treatment5.
Because of this shift in thinking, there are even some that believe infections could be a leading cause in depression – and this means that it could one day be labeled as an infectious disease6! Put simply, if you look at it like this, you could be moving away from the idea that depression is all in the mind.
Of course, infection isn’t the only way to trigger inflammation. From diet to obesity, stress and a lack of exercise, there are heaps of things that can cause inflammation in your body.
However, if you want to help things along the way, here are some Lucy Bee style tips on how to prevent inflammation:
As many of you will know, a diet high in trans fats and sugar can send inflammation levels soaring. However, a healthy, Mediterranean diet packed with fruit, veg and oily fish can keep it at bay. In fact, those who are overweight are more likely to suffer with inflammation because body fat – especially fat around the belly - stores large quantities of cytokines. The message? Start cleaning up that diet!
We all know that ditching supermarket and processed foods is good for a healthy body and mind. Yet waving goodbye to sugar and refined foods could also lower inflammation in the body. Dr. Hyman, author of 'The Blood Sugar Solution', said: “By far the most important factor in brain ageing and inflammation in America is sugar. The sheer flood of sweet things and processed refined foods into our bodies is a tidal wave that leaves destruction everywhere we look … The insulin triggered by this flood of sugar sets into motion an entire inflammatory parade.” In particular, sugar and foods such as potatoes and white pasta increase cytokines, just like when we have an infection. To avoid this, indulge in nature’s goodness to help form a healthy, clearer mind!
There’s heaps of evidence to suggest that curcumin (the stuff that makes turmeric so beautifully yellow) is a powerful anti-inflammatory. In fact, it’s been used for centuries as an ancient remedy for all sorts of illnesses and conditions. If you want to benefit from turmeric’s anti-inflammatory effects, try indulging in a turmeric latte7, or adding a sprinkle of it to homemade curries or even your morning porridge!
Inflammation can go hand-in-hand with an unhappy gut. For this reason, try limiting your intake of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and red meat, which all wreak havoc on digestive health. Instead, feed your gut healthy with probiotics and fermented foods including kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.
Beautiful leafy greens such as kale, spinach broccoli and chards and jam-packed with anti-inflammatory chlorophyll. In particular, the brassica family (veggies such as kale and sprouts) are also rich in sulphur-based compounds, which reduce the pathways that can trigger inflammation.
It’s not all about your diet - stress is also a major cause of inflammation in the body. Try easing those stress levels with exercise, getting better quality sleep, doing the gardening or meditating.
If you want to read more on inflammation and its effects on the body, Vicky Ware explains more in her article 'Inflammation and Its Effects'8.
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.