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Your diet could be causing depression

March 11th, 2015
Diet and Depression

Depression is a serious and severe condition whose prevalence is growing more and more every year. We currently understand depression to be a mental or psychiatric disorder, however recent research suggests that it could actually be an allergic reaction to inflammation. This means that depression may have as much to do with the body as the mind!

George Slavich, a clinical psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, recently interviewed with the Guardian. “I don’t even talk about it as a psychiatric condition any more,” he told them. “It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.”

The reasoning behind this theory? Well, we all feel pretty crappy when we’re sick, don’t we? We’re tired, have difficulty sleeping, and have an overall lack of enthusiasm towards everything. Psychologists refer to this as “sickness behavior.” Our bodies make us feel this way so that we take our lives down a notch and rest, so we can let our system do its magic to fight the infection that’s trying to take over. This classic sickness behavior is very similar to the feeling people experience with depression. So it’s possible that there is a common cause for both and the best candidate so far is inflammation.

We’ve discussed inflammation before; it is basically our immune system’s natural response to any sort of injury, infection or foreign compound. It’s an alarm system set up to fight invaders and call other parts of the immune system to get into action, as well. The signaling between different parts of the immune system is achieved through the release of proteins called cytokines into the blood stream. These cytokines are basically sirens that tell other immune cells that there is a problem and help is needed. They set off inflammation in the body and actually trigger the brain to switch into sickness mode.

Interestingly, cytokines and inflammation have been shown to increase dramatically during depressive episodes. People with chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis experience depression more than the normal. Even “normal, healthy” people can experience temporary anxiety or depression after receiving inflammatory vaccines such as the typhoid vaccine.

This doesn’t deny that people can be genetically predisposed to depression or that traumatic life events may trigger depressive episodes. However, it does open the door to the idea that our physical health and well-being can actually influence depression in certain situations.

So what causes inflammation? As we mentioned earlier, infections (both bacterial and viral) can induce inflammation. However, many lifestyle choices have also been shown to increase chronic, systemic inflammation. Diets high in sugar and trans fats have been shown to trigger inflammation. Obese individuals experience chronic, low levels of inflammation because the fat they store especially around the belly, stores large quantities of cytokines. Also, stress, specifically from social rejection or loneliness, is another extremely potent inducer of inflammation.

How do we treat inflammatory induced depression? According to Slavich, “lowering levels of systemic inflammation to manageable levels is a good goal to have.” Recent research has shown that adding anti-inflammatory medicines to anti-depressants actually improves symptoms. There is also evidence that natural anti-inflammatory agents such as omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin, an extract of the spice turmeric, may actually be able to help treat depressive disorders. (Read more about turmeric’s anti-inflammatory powers here!)

This new research could alter how we approach mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. The use of anti-inflammatories, dietary changes and stress-reduction techniques to reduce systemic inflammation are all new avenues of treatment to explore. We can even begin to focus on prevention by encouraging anti-inflammatory lifestyle changes in those genetically predisposed to depression. This is extremely exciting, as it opens up the door to the black box of depression and gives us real opportunities to understand it’s source and take action.

Written by Michelle S DiNicolas PhD

 

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Your diet could be causing depression
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Your diet could be causing depression
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George Slavich, a clinical psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, recently interviewed with the Guardian. "I don't even talk about it as a psychiatric condition any more," he told them. "It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health."
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