Depression - Overview

Depression - Overview

Depression is a serious medical condition with psychological consequences. For decades, western medicine has treated depression with psychoactive drugs to lift the mood with varied results. In more recent years, research has pointed more and more to the fact that depression often has an underlying physical, chemical or nutritional cause. Over the past two decades, many mental health professionals have begun to include dietary and lifestyle changes in their recommendations to treat depression and related disorders with excellent results. It is now generally accepted that depression often has an underlying physical cause, and that without treating the physical cause, therapy is ineffective in alleviating depression.

What Depression Does:

Depression is a serious mood disorder that affects nearly 17 million Americans. It can occur as single or recurring episodes, or become chronic (lasting more than two years). It affects Americans of all ages, from childhood through the elderly, and ranges from mild to severe. Depression is diagnosed when feelings of anger, irritation, sadness and loss interfere with normal daily life. There are a number of different classifications of depression, including major depression (with five major symptoms lasting more than two weeks), mild depression (five symptoms present for less than two weeks), dysthmia (chronic mild depression), post partum depression (occurring after the birth of a child), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (depression that happens approximately a week before menstruation) and seasonal affective disorder, which affects about 5% of the population and is at its worst during the autumn and winter.

Depression interferes with the ability to enjoy life, and in severe cases may impair a person’s ability to function. Depression may manifest with outbursts of anger, hopelessness and despair which lead to problems holding a job, maintaining a place to live and maintaining healthy relationships. In worst cases, depression may lead to attempts to harm oneself, or death as a result of suicide. Depression affects the perception, and may lead to drug and alcohol abuse as an attempt at ‘self-medication’.

Symptoms of Depression:

Depression is diagnosed when five or more of the following symptoms are present for two or more weeks.

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much) are major symptoms of depression. Nearly 90% of all those diagnosed with depression report a sleep disorder.

  • Change in appetite – either loss of appetite or excessive appetite, which may lead to weight loss or gain without a physical cause.

  • Nagging fatigue without physical cause

  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-hate or excessive guilt for on reason

  • Agitation and restlessness

  • Lethargy, inactivity and withdrawal

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feelings of hopelessness

  • Recurrent thoughts of suicide or harming oneself

What Causes Depression:

For decades, doctors and scientists have believed that depression stems from emotional and psychological imbalances. It’s only recently that western medicine has begun to recognize that the factors that lead to depression are far more complex than a bad personality or difficult upbringing. It’s now recognized that in many cases, depression has hereditary, chemical, nutritional and environmental causes. The confusion and mood swings, feelings of worthlessness, sleep disorders and other symptoms may all have a root in a chemical imbalance, a nutritional deficiency, an environmental factor or even a drug interaction. The effect that drugs used to treat various health conditions can have on the mood and mental well-being, particularly when they are taken in combination, is an often overlooked cause of depression and symptoms of depression. The most commonly identified causes of depression include:

  • Heredity – Recent research has uncovered the SERT gene, which helps regulate the levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin levels have been linked to depression by several major studies.

  • Chronic stress, as from abuse, loss or deprivation in childhood. Stress and the body’s attempts to deal with it can draw on supplies of particular nutrients, amino acids and other chemicals.

  • Amount of exposure to light has been implicated in at least SAD (seasonal affective disorder). We know for certain that levels of vitamin D in the body are linked to exposure to the sun. There may be other chemicals that need sunlight to activate them for proper use by the body as well.

  • Sleep disorders often accompany depression, and may be a cause.

  • Deficiencies of vitamin B9 (folate) and omega 3 fatty acids have been implicated in depression. In one study conducted at McLean’s Hospital in Massachusetts, patients who were given a fish oil supplement (an important source of omega 3 essential fatty acids) showed such a dramatic improvement in their condition that the study was ended early in order to offer the treatment to the control group.

  • Depression may stem from serious medical conditions, such as cancer or heart disease.

  • Medications used to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol and irregular heartbeat may cause depression.

Treatments for Depression:

Historically, treatment for depression includes psychotherapy, often accompanied by prescription drugs. It has been noted in many studies that the effects of therapy are greatly enhanced in many cases by the correction of an underlying imbalance. Among the nutritional supplements that are supported by research are:

Numerous studies have linked low levels of folate with depression, with 15% to 38% of diagnosed depressed patients showing lowered levels of folate in the blood. Because folate deficiency is so linked with depression, many mental health practitioners prescribe a multivitamin with B9, or a B-complex supplement that includes folate along with B6 and B12.

  • Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly DHA

In repeated studies ranging from broad-based population based studies to double blind controlled placebo studies, researchers have found evidence to strongly support the role of sufficient DHA, an essential omega 3 fatty acid found in fish and fish oil supplements in maintaining mental health. Omega 3 fatty acids are a basic building block of all the neurological cells, including brain cells and those that make up the neuropaths for chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. When the diet is deficient in omega 3 fatty acids, the body substitutes the more plentiful omega 6 fatty acids. The resulting cell formation may lack the ability to transmit chemicals and electrical ability properly. Because those suffering from depression often exhibit low levels of omega 3 fatty acids and high levels of omega 6 fatty acids, many doctors now suggest that taking a fish oil supplement to restore the proper balance of omega 3 and omega 6 may be helpful to alleviate the symptoms of depression.

While the research samples are small, several studies suggest that inositol, a chemical that occurs naturally in the brain, may decrease the symptoms of depression.

Several studies suggest that a traditional herbal remedy for depression, St. John’s wort, may be as effective in relieving the symptoms of depression as commonly prescribed chemical tricyclic antidepressants. It’s strongly suggested that anyone considering treating depression with St. John’s wort consult with a health professional, as it may conflict with other prescribed medications.

Even the traditional medical community has come to accept the importance of proper nutrition in helping to combat the effects of depression. Correcting dietary and nutritional imbalances can pave the way for more effective treatment of depression, and in many cases BE the most effective treatment for depression. Because providing the body with all the essential materials for building neural pathways is so important, many specialists in treating depression recommend health supplements that include the full complex of B-vitamins including B9 (folate) as well as a pharmaceutical grade fish oil supplement to help combat the underlying symptoms of depression.