Is Depression Just Inflammation?

Woman eating saladMany years ago, I watched Dr. Nicholas Perricone speak on PBS about inflammation, and it changed how I looked at everything. This is what I remember: He hypothesized that inflammation was the cause of aging, skin problems, heart disease, cancer, and pretty much any illness. He also believed that the right foods and supplements lower inflammation, while the wrong foods (along with other sources, such as pollution, pesticides, medications, etc.) cause inflammation. At the time, this was a radical idea not embraced by the mainstream medical world. Perricone, a dermatologist, still believes inflammation is fundamental to illness and nutrition is essential to causing and reducing it.

More recently, the idea that inflammation is the root of illness has become more accepted. But what about depression? Is depression a result of inflammation? Opinions and even studies are beginning to address this possibility. It appears as if inflammation could indeed cause depression, though most likely it is only one of the causes. Nevertheless, many of the ways we know to reduce inflammation also are recommended for people suffering from depression. I don’t believe this is a coincidence.

According to Christine Kearney at Medical News Today, studies suggest that individuals with depression who have high inflammation are not as likely to benefit from common treatment, such as antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy, which tend to help other depressed people.

One study described by Dr. Charles L. Raison in the Archives of General Psychiatry tested an anti-inflammatory medication, infliximab, on people with depression and found that in those who had high inflammation, the medication made a significant impact on their depression. Says Dr. Andrew Weil: “Cytokines are the principal chemical mediators of the inflammatory response. Anything you can do to keep them within their proper bounds will reduce your risks of chronic disease and also, it now appears, protect you from depression.”

According to an article in the Journal of Neurological and Neurosurgical Psychiatry, “Inflammation may therefore play a role in the etiology of depression, at least in a ‘cohort’ of vulnerable individuals. Inflammation may not only act as a precipitating factor that pushes a person into depression but also a perpetuating factor that may pose an obstacle to recovery.”

In a paper published in the September online edition of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Dr. Athina Markou, professor of psychiatry, and Karen Wager-Smith, a post-doctoral researcher, write: “Just as the body’s repair mechanisms for physical injury can sometimes result in chronic pain and inflammation, so too can the response to psychological trauma, resulting in chronic depression.”

Is Depression Just Inflammation?

What is the bottom line, then, if you are depressed? Probably what you already knew—depression can sometimes be relieved and prevented through good nutrition, including a lot of fish oil, probiotics, vitamin D, green, leafy vegetables, significant protein, and fermented foods, along with exercise and stress-reducing activities such as meditation, yoga, therapy, or anything else that does it for you. But now we know more about why.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT

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  • james

    October 29th, 2012 at 1:35 PM

    its no secret that our mind and body are interwoven.what affects body affects the mind and vice versa.good to see that the concept is being applied to help with problems of one (mind or body) by observing the other.could lead to some innovative and new treatments in the future.

  • regina

    October 29th, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    I find all of this to be so interesting as well as encouraging because I think that this above so many other things is finally addressing mental health concerns from a more holistic point of view than what we may have seen in the past. we are looking not only for one specific thing that could cause depression, but what combination of thisngs that are occuring in both the body and in the mind could collude together to create depressions and symptoms of depression in individuals. I think that what is most encouraging is that this creates a whole new dialogue about depression, its causes, and some ways of treating it that may not have been explored in the past.

  • thetank

    October 29th, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    A little simplistic and kind of belittling.
    Oh there’s nothing wrong with you except being a little inflamed. Yeah right.
    I’m not buying it.

  • cynthia

    October 29th, 2012 at 11:25 PM

    well depression may be depression but it definitely is not ONLY inflammation. there are far too many reasons and elements of depression and we cannot just strike down inflammation for all occurances of depression.

    and regarding the diet I have to agree that what we eat often determines how we feel.doesnt mean we always gorge on our favorite things but it points to the importance of healthy food.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    October 30th, 2012 at 12:45 AM

    I absolutely agree that depression comes from many sources: abuse, trauma, loss, negative self-talk, unbalanced brain chemistry, tragedy, suppressed feelings, addiction, genetics, and inflammation. The confusing thing is that all of these may be inter-related. Abuse can cause a traumatic response which can cause negative self-talk, which can cause depression. Abuse and trauma can also cause addiction, unbalanced brain chemistry and inflammation. Addiction can cause unbalanced brain chemistry and both can cause depression. Genetics can cause unbalanced brain chemistry and addiction, which can cause negative self-talk, which causes depression.

    The point is that all of these factors, and how they interrelate, need to be considered when unraveling and healing depression. Inflammation has clearly been shown to be one of the factors in depression, and one we have more control over than some of the others. That doesn’t mean that every depression would be cured by reducing inflammation, or that a change of diet can fully reduce inflammation. It does mean it’s worth a try when it’s quick and easy to do.

  • Cel

    October 30th, 2012 at 3:59 AM

    It is important to remember how so many of the things in our lives are interrelated, like diet and environment and especially our health. However, not everyone who has a poor nutrition or a hectic lifestyle will develop depression, so I am convinced that while these things can contribute to the worsening of depression it can not be the only things that cause it. For many mental health patients there are a series of underlying factors that can lead to depression and this should not be dismissed. Just changing your diet or slowing down a little may help, but I can assure you that this will not make it all go away.


    October 30th, 2012 at 4:20 AM

    I would think depression would cause inflammation and not the other way around.How often do you feel depressed because you have a physical problem compared to how often your body responds to depression?I would say the latter would definitely manifest more often and that the focus should be depression.

  • tally

    October 30th, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    Don’t you find it just a bit insensitive to imply that something like inflammation could be the cause of some of the worst feelings you have ever had?
    laike maybe if you took an advil it would all magically go away?

  • Laura

    October 31st, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    I would have laughed it away if I was told depression is due to inflammation. But it seems like we’re on to something here. All the studies and their findings seem to point in that direction.

    Anyway,I would love to hear from the experts what would be the result of it if it were proven so? Would we have better treatments? Depression going away if we address the inflammation? What would the future hold in this regard?

  • Terrence

    October 31st, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    If we feel that food and nutrition are integral parts of contributing to many physical illnesses then why not believe that it could be causing mental illnesses too? I am not sure why so many people would find this to be beyond the realm of possibility?

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