Is There a Connection Between Brain Health and Depression?
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
February 2, 2018
- For decades, physicians and researchers have generally misunderstood the connection between depression and brain health. They viewed depression as a result of bad brain chemistry. That, if we could only find the perfect balance of neurochemicals (usually via pharmaceuticals), we could solve the problem.
- A growing body of research suggests that chronic depression may be a neurodegenerative disorder – meaning, parts of your brain lose structure and function.
- Learn more about the connection between depression and brain health, and what you can do to support your brain and get on track to feeling amazing every day.
If you found this article because you are thinking about or have tried to harm yourself, please stop what you’re doing and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right now. There’s a 24/7 live chat option on their website if you’re more comfortable speaking to someone that way.
Depression is rampant in the 21st Century, with a growing list of pharmaceutical drugs to help “treat it.” But what is depression, really?
A growing number of researchers are blowing the whistle on the traditional pharmaceutical approach to diagnosing and treating depression. Instead, they argue brain health and inflammation might be the key to banishing chronic depression for good.
Read on to learn about the connection between depression and brain health, and what you can do to support your brain and get on track to feeling amazing every day.
Types of depression
Let’s be clear: there is a normal range of emotions that you will feel on a day to day basis. Feeling down or having a bad day – or even a bad few days – doesn’t mean you have a problem with your brain chemistry or wiring.
With no real biomarker to help define it, depression can be hard to diagnose. Plus, there’s no one definition for depression. Here’s just a few examples of different kinds of depression and how to spot them:
Situational depression arises from those life situations that make you overwhelmingly sad. It’s a reasonable reaction to a painful event. Situational depression can be triggered by things like:
- Death of a family member
- House fire
- Job loss
- Period of major stress
If you suspect you’re dealing with situational depression, talk therapy can put you on the path to feeling like yourself again. With situational depression, you might experience feelings similar to major depression, such as:
- Withdrawal activities
- Worry, anxiety
- Extended crying
- Sleep disturbances
- Appetite changes
- Attention changes
If your sadness happened because of a traumatic event and the sadness eventually ends, it’s probably situational depression.
Seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder, aka the “winter blues,” looks a lot like major depression, but usually starts in the fall as the days get shorter and you start to feel better as the days get longer.
The drop in exposure to sunlight causes your body to make less vitamin D. Either the change in light exposure itself or the resulting drop in vitamin D leads to dips in serotonin, one of the brain chemicals that regulates mood.
You may experience:
- Noticeable drop in energy
- Cravings for carbohydrates
- Sleeping more than usual
- Weight gain
- Social withdrawal
Summer seasonal affective disorder exists, but it’s less common. Experts aren’t sure why this happens, but since it’s more common as you get closer to the equator, psychologists suspect that heat and humidity have a hand in it.
Symptoms of major depression or clinical depression overlap with other types of depression, but it doesn’t get better like a situational or seasonal sadness does. If you’re experiencing any of the following and have been for more than a few weeks, find a trusted practitioner who can help you through:
- Overall sadness, listlessness
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Disinterested in activities
- Low energy or fatigue
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Disruptive changes in sleep patterns
- Trouble focusing
- Physical pains, including headaches, joint pains, and even digestive problems
- Thoughts or attempts to harm yourself
Situational depression sometimes evolves into major depression and had lasting effects.
Other forms of depression include postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, manic depression, and others.
Is depression an indicator of brain health?
For decades, physicians and researchers believed that depression was the result of bad brain chemistry. That, if we could only find the perfect balance of neurochemicals (usually via pharmaceuticals), we could solve the problem.
But a growing body of research suggests that chronic depression may be a neurodegenerative disorder – meaning, parts of your brain lose structure and function.
Researchers and physicians now wonder… is chronic depression an early sign of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s? If so, can boosting brain health at the first signs of depression help to prevent age-related brain diseases?
However, right now we have a chicken-and-egg dilemma on our hands. Is depression the result of structural abnormalities in your brain, or the cause?
Symptoms overlap between depression and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In all three conditions, you’ll see:
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of interest in activities
- Drop in motivation
- Brain fog, memory complaints
Other connections between depression and brain degeneration:
- People with depression have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s. This holds true for depression at any point in your lifetime, even well before signs of dementia set in.
- Depression is part of the “premotor” stage of Parkinson’s disease – the time before you lose control of movements.
- A large portion of people with Parkinson’s disease have a history of depression.
- Depression and other Parkinson’s symptoms can show up decades before Parkinson’s.
Depression alone doesn’t predict that you’ll end up with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but researchers are starting to zero in on how depression fits in with other early signs, like inflammation.
Can inflammation be to blame for depression?
Inflammation as a possible link to depression is actually great news. Before the inflammatory model of depression hit the scene, it was impossible to measure or “see” depression in laboratory markers in any way. Instead, clinicians base diagnoses of patients’ self-reported symptoms – symptoms that are pretty hard to measure.
Researchers and doctors now see some major links between inflammatory markers and depression:
- Depressed people have higher levels of inflammation markers in the bloodstream and research shows that inflammation slows down the growth of new brain cells.
- People who have a physical illness like cancer or autoimmune disease have higher rates of depression. This could be partially because illness sucks, and more likely because of the connection between depression and inflammation
- You can measure lower overall antioxidant levels in depressed people. When you have less antioxidant activity, you end up with more oxidative stress, and your brain is especially vulnerable to it. Ongoing oxidative stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is bad for your brain.
What you can do now for a happy brain
Depression is one of the most difficult conditions to tackle, because there are so many factors that tie into your moods. But, you can hack your brain. In fact, the book Head Strong has ways for you to build a stronger brain in just two weeks.
For now, here are some hacks to make your brain more resilient and resistant to stress.
Hack your sleep
Your cells are busy all day and night, doing what they do to keep you going. Sleep is a time for your cells to clean house and make necessary repairs before you wake up and face the stresses of the world again.
When you sleep, your brain isn’t snoozing. Sleep is the time when your brain builds new neurons and makes pathways with the ones you already have. This strengthens memory and learning, and also strengthens your individual brain cells, making them more resistant to damage.
It’s also a time when brain cells clear waste products that are there from normal day-to-day activity, and that reduces stress on the brain even further.
Depression and trouble sleeping go hand in hand, so here’s an article to help you get to dreamland and wake up feeling refreshed.
Does stress cause damage in the brain? So far, signs point to yes. Researchers found that long-term stress slows down the growth of new brain cells. On top of that, stress deteriorates the brain cells you already have.
Stress can both trigger the inflammatory response and lead to depression. Researchers measured these separately, but are they really unrelated?
If you get nothing else from this post, at least take steps to reduce your stress. Start a meditation practice, start a daily gratitude habit, find an interesting hobby that makes you feel good, and connect with friends every now and again even if you don’t feel like it.
Exercise helps your brain make new neurons by increasing the blood flow to your brain. Researchers measured increased nerve growth factors in rats after exercise. Exercise also increases the number of mitochondria you have, and more mitochondria means more energy for your brain cells.
Get your vitamin Sunshine
Light is a nutrient. Expose your eyes and skin to unfiltered sunlight for a few minutes every day. Sunlight helps your body synthesize vitamin D, a nutrient that’s vital to brain health.
Eat brain-happy foods
Eating food naturally causes a little inflammation and oxidative stress, especially if you’re choosing the wrong foods. The Bulletproof Diet is designed to stabilize blood sugar, fill your plate with nourishing foods and keep metabolic stressors to a minimum.
Here are some ways food affects depression:
- Some of the amino acids in whey protein work quickly to boost your mood and improve cognitive function.
- Certain mineral and antioxidant deficiencies were more prevalent in depressed people. Eating a truckload of vegetables and polyphenol-rich like chocolate, coffee, and fresh herbs helps.
- A wide range of studies show the mood-boosting benefits of consuming omega-3 fatty acids.
- Oxidized and trans fats do a number on your mitochondria and stress your body and brain. All of this stress ultimately affects your brain function and mood.
Is depression the cause or the effect?
It’s hard to say for sure whether depression causes brain degeneration, but the links between brain degeneration, inflammation, and depression are beginning to teach us that brain health is paramount to keeping sharp and happy as you age.
With some simple lifestyle changes, you can spark neurogenesis to build brand new brain cells, lower inflammation, and boost your brain function for the long-term.
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