“I think we have to be quite radical,” says Prof Ed Bullmore, the head of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, talking about whether the immune system could be causing depression.
Scientists believe it could be our own immune systems causing inflammation in the body and altering mood.
Prof Bullmore said: “Depression and inflammation often go hand in hand, if you have flu, the immune system reacts to that, you become inflamed and very often people find that their mood changes too.”
“Their behaviour changes, they may become less sociable, more sleepy, more withdrawn.”
“They may begin to have some of the negative ways of thinking that are characteristic of depression and all of that follows an infection.”
This subtle, yet significant shift in scientific thinking ties in with a philosophy I’ve personally held for a number of years now.
Put simply all symptoms of disease, both physical and mental, are related.
Just as symptoms of physical disease can be the result of the immune system’s response to danger, scientists now believe mental illness may be the same.
About 1 in 3 depressed patients has consistently high levels of inflammation, a hugely complicated process to prepare our body to fight off hostile forces.
If inflammation is too low then an infection can get out of hand. If it is too high, it causes damage.
Evidence suggests inflammation may actually be the cause of depression, with the immune system altering the workings of the brain.
Professor Carmine Pariante of King’s College London told the BBC: “Nearly 30% to 40% of depressed patients have high levels of inflammation and in these people we think it is part of the causal process.”
“The evidence supporting this idea is that high levels of inflammation are present even if someone is not depressed, but is at risk of becoming depressed.”
He’s shown that not only are depressed patients more likely to have high levels of inflammation, but those with an overactive immune system are also LESS likely to respond to anti-depressants.
I remember the first time I was given a prescription for anti-depressants.
It was just a few weeks after my Dad’s funeral. I was 22 years-old and my Dad had died suddenly from cancer aged just 50. I didn’t know how to handle the way I was feeling and I wanted to escape from my own head. A friend realised I needed help and took me to the doctors.
Prof Pariante argues it is moments where we experience feelings of extreme stress, grief and loss that change our immune system, priming it to increase the risk of depression.
He said: “We think the immune system is the key mechanism by which early life events produce this long-term effect. We have some data showing adult individuals who have a history of early life trauma, even if they have never been depressed, have an activated immune system so they are in a state of risk.”
Scientists believe that by measuring inflammation in the blood they will be able to identify individuals that do require a new approach to the treatment of depression, focusing on both the symptoms of depression and inflammation.
Prof Pariante concludes: “It is groundbreaking because, for the first time, we are demonstrating that depression is not only a disorder of the mind, in fact it is not even only a disorder of the brain, it is a disorder of the whole body.”
I believe ALL dis-ease affects the whole body. As Charlotte Gerson says:
“You can’t keep one disease and heal two others. When the body heals, it heals everything”.
When I started to make changes to my diet and lifestyle in 2009, I discovered that not only did my physical health improve, but my mental health benefitted too.
A study published in 2012 in the Public Health Nutrition journal revealed that consumers of fast food are 51% more likely to develop depression when compared to those who eat little or none and according to Dr Almudena Sanchez-Villegas, lead author of the study, “the more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression”.
In 2009 researcher by Mount Sinai School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, reported that cutting back on the consumption of processed and fried foods can reduce inflammation, resulting in significant impact on several epidemic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.
Combining the results of both studies I think it safe to assume that reducing foods that increase the risk of inflammation will help with depression too.
Remember, 95% of your serotonin (the feel good hormone) is made in the gut. Looking after your gut will help to look after your mind too.
Want to learn more about how I beat depression? Read these blog posts:
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