Can reducing inflammation contribute to the treatment of depression?

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Prevalence of mental disorders in Europe

A quarter of the population will probably suffer from at least one mental health disorder in our lifetime. The most common problems are depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The sheer number of people affected is a curse and a blessing at the same time. Nothing can compare to the impact of mental illness on the simplest aspects of everyday life. However, the number of patients fighting these disorders shows us that we are not alone. Often the most difficult aspect of seeking help for mental illness is understanding that you are not isolated in your suffering, and that help is available.

The impact of mental health is not limited to the affected individual. According to WHO estimates, 83 million people will be affected to some degree. Unfortunately, even these figures may be masking the true magnitude of the problem, since they do not include mental health problems for those over 65. Europe is home to six of the countries with the highest suicide rates per year. Treatment-resistant depression causes even more losses, contributing to these data. As we have already mentioned, up to 90% of suicides in these countries are attributed to some type of mental disorder.

These figures are not exclusive to the poorest or lowest-income countries in Europe. Suicide accounts for 17.6% of deaths among young adults in high-income countries. On the other hand, men are more likely to commit suicide than women. But despite these sad statistics, there is hope.

Aside from support groups, internet forums, healthcare initiatives and your doctor’s recommendations, research suggests that the link between inflammation, our immune system and depression could point to new treatment methods.

depression and inflammation

In order to understand the relationship between inflammation and depression, we must first explain some basic principles of our immune system. This system goes into action in response to bacteria, disease, or infection. In an inflammatory reaction, the immune system floods the affected area with proinflammatory cytokines, necessary to reinforce our natural defenses. However, when our inflammatory response does not subside, problems begin to arise. The accumulation of cytokines can cause damage to healthy cells, and as a result, the balance of our body can be affected. The abundance of proinflammatory cytokines has already been linked to several serious chronic diseases.

a women laying on couch, tired and with headache

Inflammation can also occur in other mental health disorders, making it transdiagnostic. By treating inflammation, you are addressing a root cause and do not necessarily need to adjust other treatments, despite differences in diagnosis. Fighting inflammation first could help those with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.

However, it is important to note that inflammation does not lead directly to psychiatric disorders, such as depression. Depression is an emotional disorder, which is divided into several subtypes. Being diagnosed with depression does not necessarily mean that you have increased numbers of pro-inflammatory cells; their presence rather means that there is an additional avenue for treatment. A JMA Psychiatry study found that 45% of patients with treatment-resistant depression also suffered from what are considered “elevated levels of inflammation.”

The link goes one step further. The data suggests that inflammation may inhibit areas of the brain linked to motivation, arousal, anxiety, and alarm. By disrupting the neurotransmitter systems in these areas, inflammation can make it difficult to treat depression. For example, we know that physical exercise helps the body produce healthy neurochemicals, which make us feel good. If inflammation can dampen our motivation, trying to exercise becomes even less likely. The same can be applied to eating a healthy diet or socializing. Then conventional treatments could be less effective, as a result of an increased inflammatory response.

a man looking out of window

Unfortunately, what works for one patient may not work for another. The human mind is a sophisticated machine that cannot be turned on and off with a single button. Further analysis is needed to establish the level of relationship between inflammation and mental health. More data, larger clinical trials, and several controlled studies are needed to confirm what we know so far.

Fighting inflammation could help alleviate depression

Researchers are eager to fully understand the relationship between inflammation and mental disorders. Preliminary data suggests that by reducing inflammation, we may boost our brain’s natural ability to beat the symptoms of depression. However, this still needs to be done in conjunction with conventional treatment methods. Theoretically, it would be possible for those with depression who are resistant to treatment to become less resistant.

Although specific conclusions about inflammation and depression have yet to be defined by further research, it certainly doesn’t hurt to think about reducing inflammation if you’re resistant to treatment. Inflammation could cause more serious chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. For people suffering from mental disorders, these studies suggest that fighting inflammation really pays off.

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