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Depression may be, in part, a chemical imbalance in the brain, such as aberrant serotonin (‘the happy neurotransmitter) or dopamine (the molecule of reward) levels. However, depression can be initiated at several levels, including the gut, due to alterations in the gut microbiome and general inflammation. It has been found that elevated markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin-6 (IL-6) can be markers of and lead to increased depression. These markers rise in stress, obesity, general medical illness, and from gut dysbiosis (poor microbial health in the gut) to name a few. This can lead to brain fog, poor motivation, difficulty with concentration, memory loss, difficulty making decisions (executive functioning), poor processing speed, and even weight gain.
Over 7 % of the nation suffers from depression – that is about 16.1 million people, per the National Institutes of Mental Health. Women are twice as likely to be depressed as are men. Some of this may be due to hormonal imbalances. The chance of women becoming depressed in their lifetime is 21-45 % while it is 10-30% for men.
There are multiple causes for depression, which include stress, poor nutrition, genetics, medications, general medical illness, obesity, lack of exercise, poor sleep, drugs and alcohol, leaky gut, hormonal imbalances, inflammation, and several other factors.
We frequently assess depression by using the basic PHQ-9 – the physicians health questionnaire that is 9 questions based on a scale of 0-3. The questions are based on the last two weeks of feelings: Link to a PHQ calculator
1.Little interest or pleasure in doing things
2.Feeling down, depressed or hopeless
3.Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping too much
4.Feeling tired or having little energy
5.Poor appetite or overeating
6.Feeling bad about yourself – or that you’re a failure or have let yourself or your family down
7.Trouble concentrating on things, such as reading the newspaper or watching television
8.Moving or speaking so slowly that other people could have noticed. Or the opposite – being so fidgety or restless that you have been moving around a lot more than usual
9.Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself in some way
These are scored on a scale of 0-3:
0 – for not at all
1- For several days in the past two weeks
2- For more than half the days
3– For nearly every day.
The score results are graded as the following:
|0 – 4||None-minimal||None|
|5 – 9||Mild||Watchful waiting; repeat PHQ-9 at follow-up|
|10 – 14||Moderate||Treatment plan, considering counseling, follow-up and/or pharmacotherapy|
|15 – 19||Moderately Severe||Active treatment with pharmacotherapy and/or psychotherapy|
|20 – 27||Severe||Immediate initiation of pharmacotherapy and, if severe impairment or poor response to therapy, expedited referral to a mental health specialist for psychotherapy and/or collaborative management|
The importance of treating depression is several fold. One is to get you feeling better. Many patients will eat excessively and gain weight to comfort themselves. Excess adipose tissue results in inflammation in the brain that leads to further depression and cognitive deficits. Others may resort to self-medication with alcohol or opioids that leads to addiction. In other cases, the person may continue a downward spiral in both their personal life, with family discord and personal unfulfillment, as well as work-related loss, such as absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up but not doing their job). The ability to concentrate and focus is much worse when depression sets in. In fact, depression has been found to physically decrease the size of the hippocampus on MRI(the memory center of the brain) as well as the prefrontal cortex (involved with decision-making and executive functioning). See the following general mainstream article: Chronic Depression Shrinks the Brain’s Memories and Emotions (ENIGMA research) .
An individual who is depressed and sitting in a room will continue to have their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex shrink due to depression and the inflammation that results. Such individuals will have difficult with memory, emotional regulation, processing speed, and decision-making. Aggressive treatment for depression should be sought as it is possible to regenerate these vital areas of the brain with treatment, such as Ketamine therapy and lifestyle interventions like exercise and nutrition. Concerning nutrition, high adherence to dietary recommendations, anti-inflammatory diet, fish consumption, exclusion of processed foods, and adequate intake of folic acid, magnesium different fatty acids, were associated with a reduced risk of mental illness. Suggestions for nutritional changes can be found at nutritionfacts, healthyplace, nutritionkits, and everydayhealth as a few options for ideas.
Ketamine therapy, as a series of infusions, demonstrates rapid reversal of depression and suicidality. It is an anti-inflammatory agent that increases Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) to increase neuroplasticity and allows the formation of new connections in the brain. This decreases depression and can be seen on MRI’s to increase the volume and functioning of the hippocampus (memory center). We will discuss more information regarding ketamine therapies in upcoming articles. Refer to NOVA Health Recovery for more information as well.
Structural changes in the hippocampus in major depressive disorder: contributions of disease and treatment
J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2010 Sep; 35(5): 337–343.doi: 10.1503/jpn.100002
Redlich, R., Opel, N., Bürger, C. et al. The Limbic System in Youth Depression: Brain Structural and Functional Alterations in Adolescent In-patients with Severe Depression. Neuropsychopharmacol. 43, 546–554 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.246
Gujral S, Aizenstein H, Reynolds CF 3rd, Butters MA, Erickson KI. Exercise effects on depression: Possible neural mechanisms. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2017 Nov;49:2-10. doi: 10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2017.04.012. PMID: 29122145; PMCID: PMC6437683.
Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression Ljungberg T, Bondza E, Lethin C. Evidence of the Importance of Dietary Habits Regarding Depressive Symptoms and Depression. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(5):1616. Published 2020 Mar 2. doi:10.3390/ijerph17051616
Huang Q, Liu H, Suzuki K, Ma S, Liu C. Linking What We Eat to Our Mood: A Review of Diet, Dietary Antioxidants, and Depression. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(9):376. Published 2019 Sep 5. doi:10.3390/antiox8090376
Koebnick C, Black MH, Wu J, et al. A diet high in sugar-sweetened beverage and low in fruits and vegetables is associated with adiposity and a pro-inflammatory adipokine profile. Br J Nutr. 2018;120(11):1230-1239. doi:10.1017/S0007114518002726
Vermeulen E, Stronks K, Snijder MB, Schene AH, Lok A, de Vries JH, Visser M, Brouwer IA, Nicolaou M. A combined high-sugar and high-saturated-fat dietary pattern is associated with more depressive symptoms in a multi-ethnic population: the HELIUS (Healthy Life in an Urban Setting) study. Public Health Nutr. 2017 Sep;20(13):2374-2382. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017001550. Epub 2017 Jul 20. PMID: 28724468.
Opie RS, Itsiopoulos C, Parletta N, Sanchez-Villegas A, Akbaraly TN, Ruusunen A, Jacka FN. Dietary recommendations for the prevention of depression. Nutr Neurosci. 2017 Apr;20(3):161-171. doi: 10.1179/1476830515Y.0000000043. Epub 2016 Mar 2. PMID: 26317148.
Zhou, Y., Wu, F., Liu, W. et al. Volumetric changes in subcortical structures following repeated ketamine treatment in patients with major depressive disorder: a longitudinal analysis. Transl Psychiatry 10, 264 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-020-00945-9