Why The Root Cause of Your Depression Isn’t What You Think
Emotions can have a powerful effect on your physical health and well-being. When you aren’t feeling 100%, having a good day can be hard. When you’re feeling depressed, well, it’s hard to do pretty much anything.
Depression not only affects you, but also those around you, and it can be a complicated condition. You want to wake up each morning ready to tackle the day head-on with fervor, but it’s difficult to do so when you’re feeling blue around the clock.
Let’s learn more about the triggers and root causes behind the development of depression, as well as natural solutions to help you overcome it.
What Exactly is Depression?
Depression is a disruption in mood that can have wide-reaching impacts throughout the body. It alters your hormone regulation, cognitive function, and behavior. Depressive symptoms can last for weeks, months, or even years.
There’s a broad range in the types of depression, symptoms experienced, and variability in the severity and persistence of those symptoms.
Depression is most commonly associated with low serotonin levels, but other neurotransmitters also play a role. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that works as a mood elevator at normal levels and as a mood tranquilizer at low levels. People with depression are typically withdrawn from the world; they’re disinterested in things they once enjoyed and are devoid of pleasure, in addition to a variety of other symptoms that will be reviewed later.
As we’ll see, the triggers for depression are many. However, research is beginning to show that the root causes are mainly inflammation and vitamin deficiencies.
How Does Depression Occur?
“Loss” Model: Depression is a reaction to the loss of a person, thing, status, self-esteem, or even a habit.
“Interpersonal Relationship” Model: Depression is an extension of behaviors used to control others, such as pouting, silence, or ignoring. The initial behaviors fail to serve the need, so the problem worsens.
“Learned Helplessness” Model: Depression is the result of habitual feelings of pessimism and hopelessness.
“Biogenic Amine” Model: Depression is caused by a deficiency of monoamines, particularly norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and serotonin. This can be from dietary deficiencies, GI infections, excessive stress, or genetic predisposition.
Prescription drugs, substance abuse, caffeine, and nicotine use can also prompt depression. Preexisting medical conditions and chronic pain can be difficult to live with and manage, so they may also result in depression. Depression can also be caused by physical, sexual, or mental abuse.
Types of Depression
Depression exists on a spectrum from mild to severe. Dysthymia is a more mild form, and major depression is a more severe form. Additional types of depression are prompted by seasons, hormones, or life events. Each have their own unique diagnostic criteria.
The official definition of major depression is based off of having five out of these eight criteria for at least two weeks:
- Poor appetite accompanied by weight loss, or increased appetite accompanied by weight gain
- Insomnia or excessive sleep habits
- Physical hyperactivity or inactivity
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities or decreased sexual desire
- Loss of energy or feelings of fatigue
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Mild depression (dysthymia) is diagnosed when three of the following symptoms are experienced for at least 2 years:
- Low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence
- Pessimism, hopelessness, or despair
- Lack of interest in ordinary pleasure and activities
- Withdrawal from societal activities
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Irritability or excessive anger
- Guilt or ruminating about the past
- Lessened productivity
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is common in winter climates and likely due to the reduction of sunlight that begins in early winter. SAD includes symptoms of anxiety, increased irritability, daytime fatigue, and weight gain. SAD usually resolves when sunlight is increased in spring.
Postpartum Disorder occurs after the birth of a baby. Feelings of extreme sadness, fatigue, loneliness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, fears about hurting the baby, and feelings of disconnection from the baby within a year of the birth are common symptoms.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder affects women during the second half of their menstrual cycles, and symptoms are more severe than PMS. Depression, anxiety, and mood swings are classic symptoms.
Atypical depression is characterized by a sense of heaviness in the arms and legs or a sense of paralysis, oversleeping, and overeating, which are the most important symptoms for diagnosis.
Psychotic depression occurs when depressive episodes are so severe that things are seen or heard that aren’t really there (delusions).
Situational depression is provoked by a stressful or life-changing event. Job loss, the death of a loved one, trauma, divorce, or a bad breakup can result in this type of depression.
Root Causes of Depression
The current understanding of depression is that it’s a chronic, low-grade inflammatory condition caused by an activated immune system.
Inflammation can be caused by any combination of chronic infections, drugs, environmental toxins, leaky gut, and stress. Just as there are many triggers that can cause inflammation, there are also many inflammatory pathways that can be activated in the body. In the case of depression, inflammatory molecules called cytokines are released by a variety of cells in the immune system.
Chris Kresser, M.S., L. Ac, reviewed several studies that linked depression with inflammation, and the main takeaways are:
- Depression is often present in acute, inflammatory illnesses.
- Higher levels of inflammation increase the risk of developing depression.
- Giving endotoxins that provoke inflammation to healthy people triggers classic depressive symptoms.
- One-quarter of patients who take interferon, a medication that causes significant inflammation but is used to treat hepatitis C, develop major depression.
- Remission of clinical depression is often associated with a normalization of inflammatory markers.18
Other factors that can lead depression include hypoglycemia, vitamin deficiencies, and impaired thyroid function.
Root Cause of Depression: Inflammation
Inflammation has many underlying causes that can result in depression, including leaky gut and dysbiosis, food sensitivities, environmental toxins, and diet.
Leaky Gut: Produces an inflammatory immune response that can cause depression.
Leaky gut refers to increased intestinal permeability that occurs when there’s a breakdown of the mechanism that controls the spaces between the intestinal cells, allowing them to become looser. This allows the “leaking” of larger and/or foreign particles through to your bloodstream, prompting an immune response that triggers inflammation.
Food Sensitivity and Gluten: Depression and fatigue have been linked to food allergies for more than 65 years.21 The most common is gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gliadin is a protein component of gluten, and when gluten sensitivity or allergy exists, the immune system responds by producing antibodies to it. Over time, this immune attack in response to gliadin degrades the lining of the intestines, producing a leaky gut that contributes to inflammation. If gluten products are eaten with most meals, the immune system flares up multiple times per day.
A diet high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids tilts the biochemical reactions in the body towards inflammation in addition to changing the composition of cell membranes.
Dietary fats influence the membrane composition of brain cells, and a lack of omega-3 fats will instead use more omega-6s for cell membranes, making them rigid and impairing cell membrane function. Cell membranes regulate what goes into and out of the cell, neurotransmitter synthesis, neurotransmitter binding, signal transmission, and the uptake of serotonin.
Sugar: A diet high in sugar will change the gut bacteria populations to favor the growth of the wrong bacteria. When the bacteria in gut are unhealthy, digestion is impaired, leading to undigested particles entering the bloodstream that mobilize the immune system.
Further, when blood sugar is high, the body generates advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The AGE molecules bounce around the body, damaging the vascular system by creating free radicals. The immune system responds, trying to patch up the damage to the arterial lining through inflammatory pathways and narrowing of the blood vessels via cholesterol “band-aids.”
Root Cause of Depression: Hypoglycemia
Hypoglycemia is the state of having low blood sugar. Sudden drops in blood sugar can cause symptoms like confusion, headaches, dizziness, irritability, sweating, trembling, weakness, poor coordination, and poor concentration.
Several studies have shown hypoglycemia to be common in depressed individuals.30 Stabilizing your blood sugar by decreasing your intake of sugar, alcohol, and caffeine will help improve your mood.
Alcohol is also a brain depressant that increases adrenal hormone output (leading to adrenal fatigue) and disrupts normal sleep processes. Ingestion of alcohol leads to hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia typically results in cravings for sugar because dietary sugar can quickly elevate blood sugar. However, increased sugar consumption ultimately causes drops in blood sugar, creating ongoing bouts of hypoglycemia (reactive hypoglycemia).
Root Cause of Depression: Vitamin Deficiency
Vitamin D is the most critical vitamin for depression, but folic acid, B12, and B6 are important as well.
Vitamin D: Reduces the inflammatory immune response and has many important roles in the brain; deficiency increases your risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and depression.32,33 Several immune-related functions appear to be influenced by vitamin D because many of the immune system cells use vitamin D directly.
Vitamin B6: Levels are typically quite low in depressed people, especially women on birth control pills or on hormone replacement therapy for menopausal symptoms. B6 is necessary for the manufacture of the neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. Insufficiency can decrease their production.
Folic Acid and B12: These two molecules work together in many biochemical processes, especially methylation, and correcting deficiencies for these will result in a dramatic improvement in mood. Folic acid and B12 function as methyl donors to create important brain neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Several factors can affect B12 levels. Certain autoimmune conditions can decrease the amount of B12 absorbed, since there won’t be enough intrinsic factor produced and it’s necessary for B12 absorption. Additionally, low stomach acid levels won’t be able to free B12 from bound proteins for absorption. Low stomach acid can also result in changes in the bacteria that live in the small intestine.
These bacteria can take the B12 for themselves and reduce what’s available for the small intestine to absorb. Vegans and vegetarians are also at risk for B12 deficiency, as they’re not getting enough animal protein. Intestinal diseases like Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s can interfere with the functioning of the small intestine and reduce absorption of B12. If you have certain genetic variations such as the MTHFR gene polymorphism, you’ll absorb 30-70% less folic acid.
Root Cause of Depression: Hypothyroidism
Dr. Mark Hyman says one of the most important factors that leads to hypothyroidism is exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides, which act as hormone or endocrine disruptors and interfere with thyroid hormone metabolism and function. One study found that as people lost weight, they released pesticides from their fat tissue. This then interfered with their thyroid function and caused hypothyroidism. Heavy metals such as mercury can also affect thyroid function.36 Mercury interferes with many of the minerals necessary for thyroid hormone production, as well as the conversion of T4 to T3.37 Mercury can come from certain fish, dental amalgams, and some vaccines.
The other big factor that interferes with thyroid function is chronic stress. The more stress you’re under, the worse your thyroid functions. Chronic adrenal stress depresses hypothalamic and pituitary function, and these two organs direct thyroid hormone production. Adrenal stress triggers inflammatory cytokines, which reduce conversion of T4 to T3.
Natural Relief from Depression
Natural management approaches for depression include lifestyle habits, alternative therapies, supplements, and herbals. Exercise, light therapy, yoga, and meditation are lifestyle activities that can positively impact depression.
A health-promoting lifestyle that includes regular exercise can make drastic changes in depressive symptoms. Regular exercise is one of the most powerful anti-depressants. Exercise alters serotonin levels and increases pain-relieving endorphins in the brain, improving mood and producing feelings of well-being and self-esteem. Exercise also reduces your risk for obesity, which is also associated with depression.
The antidepressant effect of regular physical exercise is comparable to potent antidepressants like Sertraline.4 A diet rich in whole foods, especially lean protein, vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats will help support the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine.
Light therapy helps to regulate the body’s internal clock in the same way that sunlight does. Regulating melatonin levels can improve mood and energy.
Research on cultivating mindfulness through yoga and meditation have shown promising results for psychological health, stress, and pain management.5,6 Mindfulness is the practice of learning to focus attention on moment-by moment experiences with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
The herbs and supplements commonly used for depression support include:
Vitamin B6: P5P (pyridoxal-5-phosphate, the active form of Vitamin B6) is an essential cofactor in the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Deficiency may result in decreased neurotransmitter production.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish oil or krill oil have anti-inflammatory properties and are critical for brain health and proper cell membrane function.
With the right nutritional and lifestyle adjustments, you should feel great hope in your quest to naturally overcome depression. Remember to take it a day at a time, but to also not settle for putting off to tomorrow what you can do today.