Depression is a widespread condition that affects nearly 15 million American adults per year which is around 6.7% of the United States adult population. (1) That’s a huge number and not something we should ignore. Depression and inflammation are also being linked, but more on that in a minute.
While there may be many different reasons depression occurs, many people associate depression with an imbalance of chemicals in our brain. This is where big-time pharmaceutical companies come in advertising anti-depressant drugs that claim to re-balance those chemicals and help treat depression.
While chemical imbalances may be the cause some of the time, inflammation is now something experts are starting to look at as a potential link and I’m about to explain why.
Why Chemical Imbalance May Not be to Blame
With new research coming out it’s becoming clear that chemical imbalances may not be the only cause of depression, and here’s why:
- Not everyone who suffers from depression has low levels of serotonin and norepinephrine. In fact, it has been shown that only about 25% of people with depression have a reduced amount of these neurotransmitters. (2)
- Some people with depression will actually have high levels of neurotransmitters instead of low levels.
- While a reduction in specific neurotransmitters has been shown to cause depression in animal studies, it does not have the same effect on humans.
These are just a couple of reasons it’s important to look outside of the standard “causes” of depression and dig further.
Many experts, and especially practitioners in the functional medicine field are starting to learn that depression may not be a disease at all, but a symptom of something else that is going on within the body.
The Depression & Inflammation Link
When we start to think about depression as a symptom of something bigger going on in the body, it’s important for us to talk about inflammation.
Inflammation is the root cause of nearly all chronic disease today, and depression may be no different here.
In fact, studies are now linking depression to those suffering from low-grade yet chronic inflammation.
So, what’s the link?
Studies as far back as the 1980’s found that inflammatory cytokines were responsible for a number of different symptoms associated with depression. These physicians had found that these inflammatory cytokines, when given to humans, triggered all of the symptoms needed to diagnose depression. (3) These cytokines are created in the body during an inflammatory reaction which is where the link comes in.
When we think about antidepressant drugs and particularly SSRI medications, these are some of the most widely used drugs in the United States. While they may target neurotransmitters, they may also play a role when it comes to these pro-inflammatory cytokines. SSRI drugs have been shown to decrease the production of these cytokines which would technically mean these drugs have some anti-inflammatory actions, again pointing to the fact that inflammation is indeed linked to depression.
Getting Inflammation Under Control
While the research is there and very clearly linking depression to inflammation, it doesn’t stop there.
If we are going to treat the symptom which is depression instead of treating depression as a disease, it’s crucial to treat inflammation at its source.
Unfortunately, in our modern-day world, there are so many triggers of inflammation, and diet is one of them. The Standard American Diet is certainly to blame for many of the inflammatory conditions today.
The food we put into our body plays a major role in our overall health. It’s up to us to decide to eat clean and eliminate the inflammatory and disease-promoting foods from our diet.
Here are some of the other common causes of inflammation seen today, and what we should be doing to turn things around.
I want to touch on the importance of toxic ingredients when it comes to inflammation. While eating healthy is essential to combatting inflammation you need to know what exactly you should be avoiding.
As a good rule of thumb, it’s best to stay away from processed and packaged foods and stick to foods in their whole and natural state.
Here are some of the specific ingredients and foods you will want to avoid.
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin
- Vegetable oil such as corn, soy, safflower, and canola
- Shortening & Palm oil
- Trans and hydrogenated fat
- Refined flour & all other gluten-containing products
- Conventional dairy products
- Grain-fed animal products
- Artificial colors
- High sodium processed foods
- Nitrates & Nitrites
Yes, believe it or not, stress is a major cause of inflammation. When our bodies are in a chronic state of stress, hormone imbalance can occur, and an increase in inflammatory cytokines (the exact cytokines that trigger depression) can occur.
To reduce stress, it’s important to focus on getting at least 10 minutes of stress reduction into your day every day. This can include meditation, a brisk walk, or yoga. All you need is a couple of minutes each day to allow yourself to re-center and de-stress.
Being overweight or obese can be a major trigger of inflammation. Obesity puts your body into an inflammatory state which then puts you at an increased risk of developing depression.
While weight gain and obesity are associated with an increase in inflammatory cytokines, weight loss is linked with a reduction in these cytokines which is another reason why it’s so important to maintain a healthy weight.
Below you will find out why including more physical activity in your day can help reduce your chances of weight gain and also help your mental health.
Living a sedentary lifestyle can lead to inflammation for a number of reasons. Our bodies were not designed to sit at a work desk all day. We were meant to be active and move our bodies daily. When I talk about a sedentary lifestyle I also want to point out that it’s important to move throughout the day and not just for an hour at the gym. Taking breaks and moving periodically during the day will help to get the blood flowing, strengthen our muscles, and get the oxygen moving through our organs. This is even more important if you work a desk job and are sedentary for extended periods of time.
Not only is a sedentary lifestyle a risk factor for inflammation, but it can also contribute to further depression and anxiety. Being physically inactive has also been linked to increasing the risk of certain cancers and puts you at a greater risk of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol. (3)
To get your body moving try parking your car further away from the grocery store, take the stairs, get up and do a couple of laps around the office throughout the day, or take a walk during your work break. These are all great ways to get your body moving throughout the day and then you can incorporate some physical activity into your day by doing some type of enjoyable activity. Some great ways include getting some cycling in, swimming, yoga, Pilates, walking, or jogging.
One of the tricks that I like to tell my patients is to pick something that you enjoy doing to stay active. If you choose activities that you enjoy then you are more likely to stick to it and less likely to be sedentary.
Being deficient in certain vitamins and especially Vitamin D can be linked back to depression. Unfortunately, many people are deficient in Vitamin D and especially during the colder months when we aren’t outside getting enough sun.
Vitamin D helps with reducing certain inflammatory markers in the body which have been linked to depression. Therefore when we don’t get enough of this sunshine vitamin, we put ourselves at an increased risk of developing depression.
If you live in an area where you are unable to get some sun each day, you may want to consider supplementing with vitamin D. Not only is it helpful for inflammation but this particular vitamin is great for the immune system as well.
Lack of Sleep
So many Americans struggle with getting enough sleep. Whether this is due to hectic work schedules, or sleep insomnia not getting enough sleep can have a significant impact on your risk of depression.
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to inflammation which we now know is associated with depression.
Strive to get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night and try to get into bed before 10 PM to prevent an evening cortisol surge from keeping you awake at night.
Just like toxic food ingredients, environmental toxins are important to steer clear of as well when trying to combat inflammation. While some toxins in the environment are impossible to completely avoid, there are some that are more avoidable than others. Some toxins are also found in our cleaning products we use at home or even the products that we put on our skin.
Here are some of the environmental toxins that are best to be avoided when you are trying to get your inflammation under control:
- Second-hand smoke
- Heavy metals
- Formaldehyde found in cleaning products
- Non-organic produce treated with pesticides
- High-mercury fish such as swordfish and tuna
- Toxins found in beauty and self-care products: Parabens, synthetic colors, fragrance, phthalates, formaldehyde, SLS
To help avoid some of these toxins, skip the fish that is high in mercury, choose organic foods whenever possible, stay away from cigarette smoke, and choose “greener” and more natural beauty and cleaning products. There are a ton of options available today that are free from the most common chemicals and you can even make your own household cleaner with essential oils.
Getting to the Root Cause
If you have been suffering from depression and are looking for a new way to look at this condition and possibly get to the root cause of the issue, here are three things you can do to get started:
- Reduce Your Inflammatory Load: You can start doing this by introducing more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet such as berries, wild caught salmon, and dark leafy greens. You will also want to focus on getting adequate sleep, reducing stress, and exercising 30 minutes each day. You will also want to eliminate processed foods.
- Get to the Bottom of the Inflammation: Speaking with a Functional Medicine Practitioner can help investigate the cause of the inflammation. Uncovering potential gut infections, other chronic infections, vitamin deficiencies, or other hidden causes of inflammation could help get to the bottom of what’s causing the depression in the first place.
- Implement the Action Steps Below: I have listed out some action steps below for controlling inflammation. When you lessen your inflammatory load, you are more likely to feel better both physically and emotionally! Try making some of the lifestyle adjustments and see what an anti-inflammatory approach can do for your wellbeing.
Action Steps to Controlling Inflammation
- Cut back on sugar
- Go gluten-free
- Eliminate all processed foods
- Switch to grass-fed animal products and stick to raw organic dairy if you do include some dairy in your diet
- Enjoy fatty wild-caught fish such as salmon 2-3 times per week
- Avoid environmental toxins
- Choose cleaner more natural home cleaning products or make your own
- Choose natural beauty products instead of the ones filled with chemicals
- Exercise daily
- Get your body moving throughout the day on top of daily exercise. This includes taking breaks from sitting at an office desk and including creative ways to get moving throughout the day.
- Reduce stress daily
- Improve sleep habits
If you are tired of feeling sick, not like yourself, and unable to get to the bottom of what may be causing your symptoms, I encourage you to start your own elimination diet to reduce inflammation. Not sure where to get started?
In my optimal reset plan, I walk you through this step by step to give you tons of tools to help you through this important process. I also teach you how to detoxify your body and start to heal your gut so that you are able to tolerate more foods long term.
Here are just a handful of benefits of an elimination diet:
- Weight loss
- Healthy looking skin
- Increased energy
- Deeper sleep
- Decreased joint pain
- Reduces headaches
- Improved gut health
- Helps those with leaky gut
- Can improve autoimmune conditions
- Less bloating/digestive discomfort
If you are ready to get started, Join me in my optimal reset do it yourself program.
If you are suffering from weight gain, fatigue, hair loss and more, click here to schedule a phone call with me, so I can find out where you’ve been, where you want to get to, and how I can help you get there.
I know exactly where you are because I’ve been there myself…I remember being so tired that I could barely function. I gained 30 pounds out of nowhere and had a severe case of brain fog. I also started to get severe anxiety and panic attacks. I was driven and motivated…until I wasn’t. I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I wanted was to get my life back…
Finally, I learned about functional medicine and found a practitioner that I hoped could help me. They ran specialized tests that were far different than I had ever had before. When I got the results back, it turned out I had candida, parasites, high cortisol, the Epstein Bar Virus and many food intolerances. I also had an issue with my thyroid that no one found before because they were using the conventional medicine lab ranges which are way too broad….which I now know is one of the leading causes of hypothyroid misdiagnosis.
I went through treatment of all of these things and it completely changed my life. I immediately lost the 30 pounds I had gained plus more, I had a lot more energy, and my brain fog was gone. I felt amazing and knew that I wanted to help people find the underlying causes of their symptoms and disease.
(1) Chris Kresser. (2014) Is Depression a Disease—or a Symptom of Inflammation?
(2) Ronald S Smith. Immunological Evidence Supporting The Immune-Cytokine Model of Depression.
(3) Health Risks of a Sedentary Lifestyle. (2013) Lifespan.
(4) So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? (2013)