Study Links Depression to Brain Inflammation

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Depression and Brain InflammationRecent studies show that inflammation might not just be harmful to your physical health, but to your mental health as well.

If you think about it, the average American lifestyle encourages inflammation. High stress-environments, sedentary behavior, and processed diets that are low in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats can all contribute to chronic inflammation—the source of many ailments, including heart disease and cancer.

A Little Bit About Inflammation

If you cut yourself or are exposed to an allergen or virus, inflammation occurs as your immune system fights it off. When you get a bruise from banging your knee on the table, for example, that’s your immune system working to heal cell damage. Your body releases chemicals to alert your immune system that it’s in need. Immune responders, known as cytokines, show up and get to work.

Chronic inflammation can be damaging to your body. Cancer patients and diabetics often experience chronic inflammation as their immune systems attempt to constantly fix damaged cells. This not only leads to other areas of the body that are susceptible to infection, but also creates a buildup of cytokines in the bloodstream. This can limit blood flow and eventually lead to the destruction of tissues and cells, as well as the thickening of connective tissues.

Neuroinflammation occurs when there is inflammation in the brain or in the nervous tissue. It can be initiated by a variety of factors, including an infection, brain injury, or autoimmune disorder. Research now links neuroinflammation with depression and anxiety, which can be caused by psychological stress.

Inflammation and Depression

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or feelings of isolation from time to time, you’re certainly not alone. Over 21 million Americans have depression and it can come in many forms.

In a recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers discovered a strong association between depression and inflammation in the brain. A research team found that people with clinical depression had a 30% increase in brain inflammation than people who weren’t clinically depressed. On dates where brain inflammation was particularly high, patients experienced more severe depressive episodes, indicating that the higher the inflammation, the more depressed the subject was.

The research does not indicate cause and effect, nor does it determine whether the inflammation caused the depression or the depression caused the inflammation.

This research is still of particular interest, because stress has previously been shown to increase inflammation and manifest itself physically. You often hear of physical symptoms accompanying stress, which are either caused by perceived or existing health conditions—but this inflammation is totally independent of a physical illness. Therefore, the stress and resulting inflammation (or vice versa) is strictly caused by psychological stressors, like depression or anxiety.

Previous ideas linking inflammation and stress gain more credibility through this breakthrough research. For example, some medical professionals believe that a buildup of microglia, an immune cell specific to the brain, is at the root of depression, and the resulting inflammation could be the cause of many common stress-related issues, like depression, anxiety, fatigue, and pain.

Natural Treatments for Inflammation

Most treatments for depression do not target inflammation, or even address the cause of the symptoms. Oftentimes they merely block neurotransmitters and hormones without addressing the root causes. Furthermore, a rather large percentage of people being treated for depression—up to 30%—do not respond to such treatments.

Maybe doctors are looking to treat depression in the wrong place. Perhaps they should be finding ways to treat inflammation itself. As I mentioned earlier, chronic inflammation can be heavily influenced by lifestyle; inactivity and the Standard American Diet (SAD) can both contribute heavily to inflammation. They are two independent contributors that can also contribute to obesity, another risk factor for chronic inflammation.

In order to lower your risk of inflammation:

• Try to get least 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity per day.

• Try to avoid red meat, processed foods, and refined carbs. Opt for food with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, like fish (i.e. salmon, mackerel), fruits, vegetables, and an assortment of whole grains. I wouldn’t worry too much about specific foods to include, as long as you’re eating a healthy combination of leafy green veggies, colorful vegetables, citrus fruit, and berries.

• Consuming omega-3-rich fish at least once per week and a daily serving of whole grains can also be a big help. Taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement is also recommended, as is including some olive oil into your diet.

• Make sure you are getting a solid seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Sleep is a good way to relieve stress and lower inflammation.

Acupuncture has shown to be an effective treatment for inflammation.

See more :

Lowenstein, K., “Is Inflammation What’s Causing Your Depression?” Prevention web site, March 23, 2014;
Setiawan, E., et al., “Role of Translocator Protein Density, a Marker of Neuroinflammation, in the Brain During Major Depressive Episodes,” JAMA Psychiatry 2015; 72(3): 268-275.
Kavoussi, B., et al., “The neuroimmune basis of anti-inflammatory acupuncture,” Integrative Cancer Therapies 2007; 6(3): 251-257.