Could Reducing Inflammation Support The Treatment Of Depression?


Prevalence of mental disorders in Europe

A quarter of us are likely to experience at least one mental health disorder throughout our lifetime. Common conditions include depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. The high number of individuals suffering is both a blessing and a curse. Nothing compares to the impact mental disorders have on the simplest aspects of daily life. However, the number of patients tackling mental illness also shows that we are not alone. Often, the hardest part of seeking treatment for mental health disorders is understanding that you are not isolated in your suffering, and there is help available.

Holding hands for depression support

The impact of mental health doesn't just extend to the person suffering. The WHO estimates 83 million of us will be affected to some degree. Unfortunately, even those figures could be masking the real size of the problem because they don’t take into account the mental health disorders of those over 65 years old. Europe is also home to six countries with the highest rates of annual suicides. Treatment-resistant depression takes an even greater toll, contributing to these figures. As we have already alluded to, up to 90% of suicides in those countries are attributed to some form of mental health disorder.

Those figures are not exclusive to low-income or poorer countries within Europe. Suicide accounts for 17.6% of all deaths in young adults from high-income nations. Moreover, males are far more likely to commit suicide when compared to females. Despite the upsetting statistics, there is hope.

Aside from support groups, online forums, health care initiatives, and advice from your GP, research suggests that the link between inflammation, our immune system, and depression may point to further methods of treatment.

Depression and inflammation

To begin to understand the relationship between inflammation and depression, we first need to outline the basic premise of our immune system. In response to bacteria, illness, or infection, our immune system springs into action. An inflammatory reaction floods the necessary area with proinflammatory cytokines. These are needed to bolster our natural defences. Problems start to occur, however, when our inflammatory response does not subside. The build-up of cytokines can lead to healthy cells being damaged and the balance within our body suffering as a result. An 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 dealing with inflammation, you tackle a root cause and don’t necessarily need to adjust other treatment despite any differences in diagnosis. Dealing with inflammation first could help those living with bipolar, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.

However, it is important to note that inflammation does not directly lead to psychiatric disorders like depression. Depression is an emotional disorder that has several sub-types. Being diagnosed with depression does not mean you are guaranteed to have a higher count of proinflammatory cells, rather their presence means an additional avenue for treatment may exist. One study by JMA Psychiatry found that 45% of patients who had treatment-resistant depression also had what is considered “high inflammation”.

The link then goes one step further. Data suggests inflammation can inhibit areas of the brain linked to motivation, arousal, anxiety, and alarm. By interrupting the neurotransmitter systems in these areas, inflammation can make depression even more challenging to treat. For example, we know that exercise can help the body produce healthy neurochemicals, making us feel good. If inflammation can dampen our motivation, attempting exercise becomes even less likely. Same can be said for eating well or socialising. Typical treatments may then prove less effective as a result of an increased inflammatory response.

a man looking out of window

Unfortunately, what works in one patient may not have the same results in another. A human mind is a sophisticated machine that cannot be turned on and off with a simple switch. Further analysis is needed to establish how intrinsically linked mental health and inflammation are. More data, larger clinical trials, and several controlled studies are required to ratify what we know so far.

Combating inflammation could help ease depression

The pursuit for researchers is to understand the link between inflammation and mental disorders fully. Preliminary data suggests we could support our brain's natural ability to overcome the symptoms of depression by reducing inflammation. It would, however, still need to be in conjunction with conventional forms of treatment. Theoretically, it would be possible for people living with depression, who are also treatment-resistant, to become less averse.

While the specific outcomes of inflammation and depression still need to be defined by more extensive research, it certainly doesn't hurt to think about reducing inflammation if you are proving resistant to treatment. Inflammation could cause more serious chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. For those living with mental disorders, these studies suggest that taking action against inflammation is an incredibly worthwhile pursuit.

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