Sometimes people just don’t feel like doing what is good for them. When depression strikes, even the simplest things seem impossible. Depression is a common mood disorder that causes symptoms that seriously affect feelings, thoughts and ability to perform usual daily activities.
Depression and the immune system
Depression was reported in a case series of 14 patients with lupus in the 1950s. Lupus is a chronic illness marked by inflammatory responses launched by the body’s immune system. The report postulated that, because patients could not exercise due to the effect of lupus on the joints, they were prone to the effects of stress. The combination of stress, depression and activity restriction exacerbated lupus symptoms and maladaptive behavioral patterns.
Immune and inflammatory responses
As new antidepressant medications were introduced in the 1990s, researchers were also developing ways to measure various biological markers of stress, inflammation, immune response and so forth. While depression was still viewed as disease of mind, brain and body, researchers sought to understand how all of these were interconnected.
A study in 2006 suggested that eating foods with a certain type of polyunsaturated (“healthy”) fat was good for depression. Based on those findings, others suggested that depression was “a disorder of low-grade systemic inflammation” because certain kinds of fat increased systemic inflammation and others lowered it.
Depression and oxidative stress
In recent years, it has become clear that certain foods caused systemic inflammation and that inflammation is associated with disease. The concept of free radicals became popular, and people were encouraged to consume foods that were high in antioxidants. These poor health outcomes among the depressed were attributed to high oxidative stress.
A meta-analytic study, published in the December 2015 issue of The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, analyzed published studies that measured various biological markers of oxidative stress and antioxidants before and after antidepressant medication treatment as compared to healthy control patients. The reviewers found that depressed patients had more oxidative stress and lower antioxidant levels than healthy controls. After antidepressant medication, depression scores lowered as did antioxidant levels.
These findings corroborated a very similar meta-analytic study that had been published in the October 2015 issue of the online journal PLoS One. The studies included in this meta-analysis also showed more oxidative stress damage and lower antioxidant levels in depressed patients, which improved after treatment with antidepressant medication.
Depression as a systemic disease
Yet depression rates continue to rise, and depressed people who have biological changes continue to be predisposed to physical disease and worse prognoses. A new study measured specific protein levels that indicate immune and inflammatory responses and fat metabolism. Elevated levels predicted depression with 68 percent accuracy. These advances explained the mind-body connection in depression and how oxidative, immune and inflammatory markers can predict depression. Still, finding better treatment remains a challenge.
Back to basics
Perhaps the authors of the lupus paper from the 1950s were onto something when they emphasized the importance of being able to exercise to maintain mental health. The mind-body connection clearly cannot be ignored when treating any mental or physical illness. Those suffering from depression are at risk for developing physical illnesses and vice versa.
Depression symptoms and biological indicators of stress are linked. Since depression is associated with stress, and elevated stress markers are associated with abdominal fat and metabolic syndrome, the link between depression and poor health outcomes attributed to high oxidative stress is not surprising. So how do we lower stress and treat depression symptoms?
Applying common sense to depression treatment
These research findings linking depression to stress beg the question: Couldn’t exercise lower stress levels and prevent abdominal fat, metabolic syndrome and poor health outcomes? The fact that exercise does prevent and reverse abdominal fat and metabolic syndrome is not a secret. Anyone who exercises regularly knows it helps reduce stress levels. And regarding inflammation, even minimal exercise promotes positive adaptive changes in the brain, reduces neuroinflammation and improves prognosis in patients with depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
Sometimes breaking out of a negative pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors can be difficult. For those who suffer from depression, usually something needs to change to reverse a downward spiral. For example, depression treatment can set in motion a new pattern that includes developing a healthy lifestyle. As physical and mental health return, risk for long-term, chronic illness is replaced with positive momentum toward a bright, new future.
At White River Academy, we integrate multidisciplinary strategies to promote lasting physical and behavioral health in young men ages 12 to 17. When treatment becomes necessary, the White River Academy in beautiful Delta, Utah, offers state-of-the-art care, education and growth opportunities that can lead to a bright future. We treat every patient and his family with respect and understanding, helping them to heal and attain their potential. Our financial counselors can provide insurance solutions, resources and information about how to access the best care possible. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer, she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education.