Over 16 million people suffer from depression making it one of the most common mental disorders in the US. One in eight Americans over the age of 12 are taking antidepressants, representing a 65 percent increase in the last 15 years. These are troublesome statistics given that most doctors are not addressing the root causes of depression.
As with any pain or injury, depression is the body’s way of communicating that something is out of balance. Ignoring the underlying cause of depression is like disconnecting the engine light in your car instead of investigating what’s wrong with the car.
Functional medicine practitioners understand that all the parts of the body work together and influence each other. Looking at the body as an integrated whole means that you don’t isolate and treat only one part of the body – such as the brain in depression. You take into consideration the overall health of the body.
Scientists are discovering the most frequent cause of major depressive disorder is brain inflammation which can be triggered by many factors such as blood sugar imbalances, hormonal imbalances, immune dysregulation, stress, gut health, and gut microbiome dysfunctions.
Unfortunately, antidepressants don’t help this kind of depression because they only target brain chemicals. These are the neurotransmitters that govern mood, motivation, behavior, and mental activity. Even natural remedies, such as 5-HTP or Saint John’s Wort, only address the neurotransmitter issue.
These aren’t effective solutions because they don’t apply the newer research which shows the role that inflammation plays in depression to disrupt brain function.
Brain inflammation slows firing between neurons
Your brain operates through communication, or firing, between neurons. However, when the brain becomes inflamed, the inflammation slows down conduction between neurons. Slowed firing between neurons in the frontal and limbic lobes of the brain leads to depression.
Brain inflammation prevents the production of neurotransmitters
When you have proper neurotransmitter production and activity in the brain, you experience happiness and contentment instead of depression. When the brain is inflamed, it can’t effectively synthesize dopamine and serotonin, the two neurotransmitters most associated with depression.
Dopamine is associated with “pleasure and reward.” If your dopamine level is low, you could experience the following symptoms:
- Inability to handle stress
- Inability to self-motivate
- Inability to start or finish tasks
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Short temper over minor upsets
- Isolating oneself from others
- Unexplained lack of concern for family and friends
- Low libido
- Self-destructive thoughts
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter connected to “joy and well-being.” Symptoms of low serotonin include:
- Feelings of depression
- Feelings of inner rage and anger
- Difficulty finding joy from life’s pleasures and favorite activities
- Lack of artistic appreciation
- Depression when it is cloudy or when there is lack of sunlight
- Not enjoying friendships and relationships
- Not enjoying favorite foods
- Unable to fall into deep, restful sleep
- Overwhelmed with ideas to manage
- More susceptible to pain
As dopamine levels drop, you lose your motivation and drive. As serotonin drops, you lose your mood, sense of happiness, and satisfaction with things you used to love.
It might make sense to prescribe antidepressants if this was only a neurotransmitter problem. However, antidepressants usually don’t help because they fail to address the brain inflammation impacting the faulty functioning of the neurotransmitters.
Brain inflammation prevents neurotransmitter receptor sites from functioning properly
Even if there is enough dopamine or serotonin in the brain, inflammation will inhibit receptors from responding to them appropriately. This prevents neurons from communicating with each other efficiently resulting in depression.
Brain inflammation and depression are signs the brain is degenerating too fast
The two types of cells that make up the brain are neurons and microglia cells. Microglia cells are the brain’s immune cells and facilitate healthy neuron function, respond to foreign invaders, and clean up plaque and debris.
Unlike the body’s immune cells, the brain’s immune cells don’t always turn off once they get triggered. A brain injury, an inflammatory food, unstable blood sugar, a chronic infection, poor gut health, infectious bacteria in the gut, chronic stress, alcohol abuse, and other threats can all contribute to these cells becoming over-activated in order to protect the brain. Unfortunately, they won’t necessarily stand down afterward. Poor dietary and lifestyle choices can keep them turned on in that over active state indefinitely, especially if consistently triggered by poor dietary and lifestyle choices.
When brain inflammation goes unchecked, you not only increase your chances of experiencing depression, you also put yourself at risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other brain degenerative diseases.
Contact my office to learn more about how functional medicine can help you calm brain inflammation and overcome depression.