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Depression: An Inflammatory Disorder? New Insights and Strategies for Prevention

Submitted by on October 2, 2013 – 10:38 PM One Comment

huge.2.14363Depression is one of the most well-recognized mental disorders in our society, yet ironically scientists still find it difficult to explain its causative factors. Defined as a feeling of anger\grief\ helplessness for long periods of time, depression is attributed to a dearth of serotonin (the “Happy hormone”) in our brain. Though various studies have successfully linked emotional trauma, chronic illness and substance abuse to depression, these are however ,still recognized as risk factors only. Therefore “How these risk factors lead to serotonin insufficiency” or why “only a certain segment of people suffering from these predispositions develop depression” are questions that still confuse psychiatrists.


Enter the Inflammation theory: Inflammation occurs whenever you are injured or exposed to harmful germs. In response, your body releases specialized proteins called cytokines that drive your immune response and lead towards repair. One of the many functions of cytokines is the recruitment of white blood cells (the body’s natural police force) to the site of injury to fight off pathogens. Experts now believe that increased exposure to cytokines via stress, diet and environmental toxins lowers body serotonin levels and elicits depression.


The connection was first established in 1980s when researchers injected harmful bacteria into animals and found that besides the typical inflammatory response the animals also exhibited signs of depression i.e. lethargy, loss of appetite and reluctance towards social contact. Fascinated, Christian Friedrich and her team conducted studies on cancer patients and found that those suffering from depression had higher levels of interlukin-6, a cytokine. Au B further validated this when he showed that depressed individuals tend to have higher levels of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory protein whose synthesis is induced by cytokines). Other scientists however were not convinced.


Therefore Raison and his team put these new findings to the test. They gave infliximab – an anti-inflammatory drug, to people with major depression. They discovered that those subjects with higher levels of C-reactive proteins had greater improvements in their symptoms. What does this mean for us?


Though the correlation between inflammation and depression has not been firmly established but we can safely conclude that with the following steps that reduce inflammation, one can also prevent depression and probably treat it. These steps include:

• Eating a balanced diet

• Performing enough physical exercise

• Getting adequate sleep

• Avoiding substance abuse.


About the Author: Mohammad Yousuf ul Islam is a second year medical student studying in Dow Medical College, Pakistan. His interests lie in the field of cardiology and neurology. Yousuf can be reached at [email protected]


About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2013

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  • Haris Riaz

    The author states that the cancer patients have depression as well as higher pro-inflammatory cytokines. Please note that those cytokines as well as other pro-inflammatory mediators are due to cancer and not due to depression. Cancer cells express aberrant receptors on their surface which trigger an inflammatory cascade.
    If the relationship was that strong, patients on anti-inflammatory drugs would be less likely to suffer from depression, something which we do not see in clinical practice.