Psychologists are finally confirming what many of us already suspected: depression is a physical disorder, not a mental one. Immune messengers known as cytokines–which help fight infections like the flu–can cause depression when chronically activated.
When you’re sick with a viral or bacterial infection, you feel exhausted, socially withdrawn and mentally foggy. This is known as “sickness behavior” and it has a biological function: to help your body reserve energy and fight infection. But when the immune system is constantly reacting to inflammation in the body, depression can result.
So what causes this rascally inflammation? The causes can vary from person to person, but there are many potential sources. Junk foods like trans fat and sugar are major offenders, as are allergens like mold and pollen. (If you have allergies, you know how miserable and cranky you feel during an attack). Food allergens can also trigger a this sort of inflammatory response, as most of the body’s immune system is located in the gut. Stress, lack of sleep and immune-stimulating drugs like interferon can also cause a flood of cytokines.
Depression is a complex disease with many causative factors. Not all cases can be blamed on a faulty immune system alone. But this finding could open the door to new treatments and a less stigmatizing view of depression sufferers. The “chemical imbalance” theory has spawned a host of medications with an abysmal success rate. Makes sense, as boosting serotonin or other neurotransmitters would do little for depression caused by an immune response.
But do anti-inflammatory drugs really fight depression? Some studies say yes. Combined with traditional antidepressants, NSAIDs like celecoxib (Celebrex) and the anti-inflammatory herbs ginger and turmeric provided more relief than antidepressants alone. It’s too early to suggest trading your Prozac for anti-inflammatories, so talk to your doctor before changing your treatment plan.