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Depression has become a much more visible subject these days. Partly because the taboo around it (thankfully) has been broken down, so we speak more about it. Sadly however, it also seems that more people are becoming depressed. In fact it is expected to be the biggest single cause of disability by 2030 (1) with 25% of cases occurring before the age of 20. Epidemic status. As always we are on a quest to find what the latest science suggests to be some of the root causes – particularly where these causes are things we can potentially do something about. In this article we look at one potential cause: Chronic Inflammation which is caused by many things that are now rife in our society. We look at the science and some things you can potentially do to reduce your/your child’s risk around it:
Modern lifestyles are being blamed (in part), for the seeming rise in cases of depression. New research is also rooting a propensity to get it, to what happens in our childhood. However, NOT in the way that we (or Freud) may have previously thought….
New research is blaming something going on in our bodies: Chronic inflammation:
Modern science has realised that chronic inflammation is at the root of many modern day chronic illness. We have also known for a while that it is linked to depression. However, new research is suggesting that it could in fact be a CAUSE of depression.
How on earth can this be the case? How reliable is this new research?
If you really want to get in to the detail, I highly recommend reading The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore – an absolutely brilliant book. In case you dont have that kind of time on your hands, here it is in brief (promise!):
When we are injured or attacked (by microbes) our bodies go in to defence mode. Our first line of immune cell defence (Macrophages in case you were wondering!) start to produce cytokines at the site of attack.
What is a cytokine? Think of them as signals to the rest of the immune system that an attack is happening – a call to arms if you like – mobilising the rest of the army within the body. These circle throughout the body.
This of course is great in many ways, crucial in fact as it has helps us survive infection/attack etc. Its the body’s protective force. The trouble comes however when we are constantly under attack – particularly at a low level. Also known as chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is caused by many things. However there are a few more modern day triggers that increase the risk: obesity, diet, stress, processed food, pollution, toxic exposure, an imbalanced/leaky gut etc – click here for much more.
Why is this more of a problem?
The longer we are under attack, the more cytokines (or signals for defence) through our body and the more our immune system is fired up. The trouble is that our immune cells (in the process of defending) us spew off large quantities of things like digestive enzymes and bacteria fragments to surrounding tissues. This is collateral damage and unfortunately causes local damage to our own cells and proteins. (1)
Unfortunately modern life is attacking our bodies more of the time. Making many of us chronically inflamed (that is low levels of inflammation over a long time). This ultimately = greater chance for damage to ourselves.
How does this affect our mood and brain though?!
Do you ever notice that when you’re ill you actually feel down and depressed? Is this because you know you’re ill or is it a physical effect?
Science says it is in fact partly the latter:
It’s tough if you’re depressed as you can feel like it is your fault/all in your mind. Often making you feel even worse. However, this research shows that may not be the case and in fact it is a physical issue stemming from your body.
Research had previously suggested that the body and brain were kept entirely separate by what’s known as the blood brain barrier (BBB). What now know that things can pass – specifically inflammatory proteins – enabling these cytokines to send inflammatory signals into the nerve cells in the brain.
The trouble is when nerve cells are inflamed, the crucial connections between them (synapses) are impaired and processing of information can be affected. You have probably heard of Serotonin in association with depression (also known as the happy hormone) it is actually a neurotransmitter and research has shown that inflammation has a direct impact on it.
Normal nerve cells make serotonin from a building block called tryptophan – cytokines can instruct them to instead make other products that are toxic and can even poison nerve cells.
In fact inflammation can cause nerve cells to die or shrink, make the connections between the cells more rigid, disrupt the supply of neurotransmitters and can even block the regenerative process.
All of this this can = ‘changes in how the brain works, which in turn causes changes in mood, cognition and behaviour that we recognise as depression’. (1)
So it seems its not just a link – evidence is growing that in some cases it can be a direct cause:
MRI evidence has shown that inflammation of the body can have a direct causal effect on the brain and mood.
‘Accumulating evidence implicates the immune system, particularly low grade systemic inflammation…in the pathogenesis of depression, psychosis and other major mental disorders.’ (2)
Ok, but what does this have to do with our children?
There have been a number of studies showing that chronic inflammation in children has been linked to greater rates of depression in adults. One study looked at 15,000 children at age 8. Children who had levels of cytokines in the top ⅓ were 1.5x more likely to become depressed by age 18. (2)
‘The current study adds to the existing evidence by showing that childhood IL-6 (inflammation marker) levels are associated with subsequent persistent depressive symptoms, which might indicate that low-grade systemic inflammation contributes to development and persistence of depressive symptoms.’ (2)
Another study showed a ‘dose-response association between childhood IL-6 levels (inflammatory marker) and future risk for depression in young adulthood’ (3)
As a parent (or parent-to-be) how on earth can you protect for this?
The first thing to note is that depression (like most things) is complex and there is often not one single cause. It is also worth knowing that the science here continues to evolve. However as always awareness is 90% of the battle and the best thing to do is to take positive action where we can.
Reducing the chances for inflammation in your/your child’s body is in light of this research the absolute first port of call. The good news is that there are lots of positive things you can do which can reduce inflammation and make happier healthier people overall. Win win!
Click here for more on inflammation and even better: the top ten ways we can avoid it in our lives.
1) Bullmore E: The Inflamed Mind. 2018
2) Khandaker GM, Stochol J, Zammit S, Goodyer I, Lewis G, Jones PB: Childhood inflammatory markers and intelligence as predictors of subsequent depressive symptoms: a longitudinal cohort study. Phsychological Medicine. Cambridge Univerity Press. 2017
3) Khandaker G, Pearson R, Jones PB: Association of Serum Interlukin 6 and C-Reactive Protein in Childhood with Depression and Psychosis in Young Adult Life. JAMA psychiatry. 2014 Oct: 71 (10) 1121-1128
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.
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