Depression affects more than 16 million people, making it one of the most common and fastest growing mental disorders. Use of antidepressant has skyrocketed by 65 percent in the last 15 years, with as many as one in eight Americans taking the drugs.
However, antidepressants do nothing to address the root causes of depression. Depression is a warning flag that the body and brain are out of balance, just in the way pain or illness are. Turning off depression with a drug is like removing the engine light from your car instead of figuring out what’s wrong with the car.
In functional medicine we view the body as an integrated system — everything in the body works together. Conventional medicine often fails people because it isolates and treats one part of the body independently. This often doesn’t make sense, such as with depression — the overall state of health influences which symptoms a person has.
Many things can contribute to depression, such as imbalances in blood sugar, hormones, immunity, gut health, and the gut microbiome.
Imbalances in any one of these areas can inflame the brain, which is increasingly being found to be the most common cause of depression. When inflammation causes depression, antidepressants are of little to no value.
This is because these drugs act on brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help regulate mood, motivation, behavior, and mental activity. Natural remedies such as 5-HTP or Saint John’s Wort also work on neurotransmitters.
However, influencing neurotransmitters does not address inflammation affecting the brain. Inflammation leads to depression in several ways.
Brain inflammation slows conduction between neurons
Your brain operates by neurons communicating, or firing, with one another. However, inflammation slows down firing between neurons. When communication between neurons is slowed in the brain’s frontal and limbic lobes, this causes depression.
Brain inflammation sabotages neurotransmitter production
Happiness and well-being depend on sufficient synthesis of neurotransmitters and their activity. An inflamed brain inhibits the production of dopamine and serotonin, the two neurotransmitters most linked with depression.
Dopamine is the “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter and low dopamine symptoms include:
- 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
Serotonin is the “joy and well-being” neurotransmitter and low symptoms include:
- Feelings of depression
- Feelings of inner rage and anger
- Difficulty finding joy from life’s pleasures and favorite activities
- 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
Low dopamine leads to loss of motivation and drive while low serotonin leads to loss of well-being — both of which lead to depression.
In these situations, antidepressants don’t really have an effect because they do not address the underlying cause of brain inflammation.
Brain inflammation inhibits neurotransmitter receptor sites function
Brain inflammation also impacts the ability of neuronal receptor to respond to neurotransmitters. Even in the case of sufficient dopamine or serotonin, you will have symptoms of depression if the receptors cannot respond to them. Brain inflammation prevents neurons from receiving dopamine and serotonin, which in turn lowers their ability to communicate with one another efficiently.
Brain inflammation and depression are a signal the brain is aging, or degenerating, too fast
The brain consists of two types of cells: neurons and microglia cells. Microglia cells are the immune cells in the brain that foster healthy neuron function, respond to foreign invaders, and remove plaque and debris.
Unlike the body’s immune system, the brain’s immune system does not have an off-switch. This means when a brain injury, inflammatory food, unstable blood sugar, chronic infection, poor gut health, bad gut bacteria, chronic stress, alcohol abuse, and other insults rigger the brain’s immune cells, they can become over-activated. Because they don’t necessarily turn off, especially in a case of poor diet, chronic stress, unstable blood sugar, or hormone imbalances, they stay in a “primed,” or over active, state indefinitely. This is what causes brain inflammation and depression.
I hope you can understand now why so many individuals don’t respond to antidepressant medications and why you must tackle brain inflammation instead. If you don’t and allow brain inflammation to continue without intervention, this significantly raises your risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegeneration diseases.
Ask my office how functional medicine can help you address brain inflammation and overcome depression.