Depression has grown to epidemic proportions. In 2014, an estimated 15.7 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. According To the CDC, about one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes antidepressant medication. For more startling statistics, just take a look at the infographic at the end of this article. It shows the number of people diagnosed with the condition increases by about a whopping 20% every year.
The numbers are telling us — no, screaming at us — that what we’ve been doing isn’t working!
In the 1960s, we were told depression was due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Then, a still popular theory, blamed it on too little serotonin. Today, we know that it’s much more complicated than either of these. According to Harvard Medical School, millions of chemical reactions in the brain work to regulate mood, perceptions, and how you experience life. To be sure, the chemicals in your head are involved depression, but it’s not as simple as one chemical being too low and another too high.
In the article, Depression: It’s Not Your Serotonin, Dr. Kelly Brogan MD posits that as one of only two countries that allows direct to consumer advertising, we have undoubtedly been subjected to the idea that brain chemicals as the cause of depression by pharmaceutical companies. She provides ample scientific evidence for the statement:
What if I told you that, in six decades of research, the serotonin (or norepinephrine, or dopamine) theory of depression and anxiety has not achieved scientific credibility.
In the aforementioned article and in her book, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives, Brogan calls for the monoamine theory of depression, citing neurochemicals as the cause, to be laid to rest. She proposes that people benefitting from antidepressants are experiencing a learned placebo effect, and that the medications are harmful. In the short-term, they increase suicide risk, and may even be depressogenic, inducing the depressed state and disabling the body’s self-healing potential, with long-term use.
Depression Is An Epigentic Syndrome
It isn’t my intent to bash antidepressants here. I know people who have found them tremendously helpful, and I know people (like myself – I tried to commit suicide two weeks into a new antidepressant. Read my story here.) who have found them extremely harmful.
My point is that with the alarming growth and relapse rates of depression, even with the use of these medications, we have got to figure out a better solution.
Dr. Brogan suggests that depression is not a brain disorder, the lack of one neurochemical or another, or a genetic illness. It’s an inflammatory condition which is the body’s adaptive response to stress, known as the cytokine theory of depression. The state of depression is a manifestation of irregularities in a body that can start far away from the brain and have nothing to do with chemical balances in it.
She calls depression an “epigenetic syndrome.” In How Your Thoughts Change Your Brain, Cells, And Genes, I explain epigenetics as:
The fast growing field of epigenetics is proving that who you are is the product of the things that happen to you in your life, which change the way your genes operate. Genes are actually switched on or off depending on your life experiences, and your genes and lifestyle form a feedback loop. Your life doesn’t alter the genes you were born with. What changes is your genetic activity, meaning the hundreds of proteins, enzymes, and other chemicals that regulate your cells.
So, in other words, Brogan proposes that it’s a lifestyle disease turned on by your genes in response to stress, but depression isn’t the root disease itself. It’s the outward expression of imbalance in the body, the symptom. It’s the body alerting you to the fact that something is wrong. By taking antidepressants, we’re merely suppressing the symptoms, not addressing the real cause.
Seeing Depression As An Opportunity
Brogan encourages us to view depression as an opportunity to stop and figure out what our body is trying to tell us. If you had pain in your swollen ankle which persisted for a week until you couldn’t put any weight on it, you wouldn’t just take painkillers, relieving the symptoms, and consider it resolved. Same with depression. It’s your body telling you that something is wrong and needs attention. Brogan says it’s a “lifestyle crisis that demands a reset.”
It’s a signal that the interconnected systems of the body are out of balance — from blood sugar to gut health to thyroid function — and inflammation is at the root.
Lifestyle interventions are the prescription Brogan offers for healing the inflammation in the body, causing depression. Dietary interventions, detoxing your life, improving sleep, and stress management practices, such as meditation and exercise, are the tools every single person has available to overcome depression (and other illnesses) and change their lives for the better. In her book, Brogan offers a step-by-step action plan to start the healing process.