New Research will Change the Way We Think About Depression. (Finally!)

New Research will Change the Way We Think About Depression. (Finally!)

The way we have been thinking about depression is broken. Depression is widely considered to be a mental illness – an disorder of the mind – but new research has challenged that, and the findings will change the way we think about and treat depression.

Physical illness rarely carries the same crippling stigma as mental illness. There seems to be a gap between the way we think about the two, with physical illness often garnering more respect and permission to ‘be’. To understand depression in a way that and fosters better treatment options and greater clarity, we need to find out more about what it is – or what it is not.

Enter a team of international researchers, who have gone and done just that. 

The Research – What They Did.

For the very first time, in a comprehensive study lead by a team of researchers from around the world, we have scientific proof that depression is not just a mental disorder but a systemic one that affects the whole body. The massive study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry involved an analysis of 29 previous studies, comprising a total of 3,961 people.

The researchers were interested in the way depression manifested in the bodies of those individuals. They found that depression affects the whole body on a cellular level. In light of this, the researchers have called for depression to be considered a systemic disease, rather than a mental one.

The results make sense of the longstanding observation that people with depression are also more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and heart disease.

What They Found.

The study revealed that depression was linked to oxidative stress in the body. When compared to people without depression, those who were depressed had elevated levels of malondaldehyde – a compound that indicates oxidative stress.

So what is oxidative stress? Let me explain. Oxidative stress happens when the body overproduces free radicals and then struggles to get rid of them from the body. Free radicals cause damage to critical parts of cells including proteins, DNA and cell membranes. When the free radicals damage these important parts of the cells, the cells aren’t able to function properly. Eventually, they can die.

Free radicals are produced naturally by the body but overproduction can be triggered by stress, pollutants, alcohol, the air we breathe, the food we eat (particularly fried food), the body’s natural immune system response (inflammation) or tobacco smoke. In short, modern living makes us vulnerable.

One of the ways the body detoxifies free radicals is through antioxidants. Antioxidants inhibit oxidisation by scavenging free radicals from the body. When there are too many free radicals floating around and not enough antioxidants to mop them up, the body struggles to keep up with the detoxification of the free radicals. The body comes under oxidative stress and this is when the damage to the cells can spread throughout the body.

What it Means.

The findings open up new avenues for the treatment and prevention of depression. Heal the body and we can heal the mind. 

In their study, the authors conclude that;

‘Results suggest that oxidative stress plays a role in depression and that antidepressant activity may be mediated via improving oxidative stress (and) antioxidant function.’

After receiving the usual treatment for depression, the levels of malondialdehyde (the indicator that the body may be under oxidative stress) decreased, and the levels of antioxidants increased. Eventually, both malondialdehyde and antioxidants were restored to such a level that the bodies of people with depression were indistinguishable from people who did not have depression.

Future Promise.

Depression has long been thought of as a disorder of the mind and this is the way it has been treated. Antidepressants target neurotransmitters in the brain, and though some people find great relief from these, many don’t find relief, or eventually relapse.

It seems that in treating only the mind, we have been getting it spectacularly wrong. The mind and the body are deeply connected. An abundance of scientific research has consistently delivered us the proof. 

Depression is an illness of the whole body, not just the mind. In recent years, the theories around depression being caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain have started to break down.

[irp posts=”1727″ name=”Healing From Depression. The 6 Proven, Non-Medication Ways That Are As Effective as Antidepressants (We Should All Be Doing This!)”] 

We know that when some people are given antidepressants that target serotonin levels in the brain, they find relief. For a long time, this was taken as evidence that a lack of serotonin caused depression. Just because something makes it better, that doesn’t mean that the body is deficient in that ‘something’. This is similar to saying that shyness is caused by a lack of alcohol, or that headaches are caused by a lack of paracetamol, or that fatigue is caused by a lack of caffeine. 

There is another reason the low serotonin/depression-is-all-in-the-head theories are becoming shaky. If one of the symptoms of depression is low serotonin, what causes the low serotonin? The way we have been thinking about depression – as purely a mental illness – stops short of a full explanation.

Antidepressants have given great relief to many people, but there are many who find no relief at all. It’s likely that by treating the chemical imbalance, we are only treating part of the problem. Think of it like treating fatigue with a decent sleep. When fatigued people sleep, they feel less fatigued. Does this mean that fatigue is from a lack of sleep? Sometimes, yes, absolutely. And in these cases, a decent sleep will be exactly what’s needed. Sometimes though, fatigue will be a sign of something else happening in the body – an infection, a virus. In these cases, sleep might help but the relief won’t be lasting because it won’t be treating the cause.

When we change the way we think about depression – as an illness of the whole body, not just an illness of the mind – we open up new possibilities for treatment. The body can heal and so can the mind. This is not new information, but hopefully, with our ever expanding understanding of depression, we can use this old information in new and powerful ways to heal the mind, body and spirit in more enduring and effective ways.

37 Comments

Shiraz

This article is what I was looking for. I do not believe in antidepressants. Taking them for 2 years without much improvement. Will try this method with antioxidents

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Jackheysigmun

Thank you. This makes sense. Ok where can I get help? My psychiatrist certainly won’t buy this.

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Mary

Hi Karen,

You said that, “One of the ways the body detoxifies free radicals is through antioxidants.” What is the best way to get more antioxidants? I always see products advertised in the store.

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Clare

Karen,

I simply love your articles. I have been working in the mental health field for over 20 years and I find your writing reader friendly and inspiring for so many that need a bit of hope.

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Alexandra Della Fera

Speaking of anxiety – as the last post mentioned- does this theory hold true for anxiety disorders as well? Or is there a distinct systemic difference between depression and anxiety?

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Jasmin Beck

Yet again another interesting and informative article, if like me you suffer severely from depression and the medications over 40 years have proved toxic for me-that doesn’t mean they on’t help others.
I have finally found a wonderful psychiatrist who is not using meds with me and is withdrawing me slowly from clonazepam, but due to other issues is keeping it at current level due to severe anxiety and sleep issues. He is using a combination of clonazepam and melatonin to try to help me.

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Ken

This is a wonderful website and I appreciate what you’re doing.

I’ve suffered from depression since I was a teenager, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me until after it cost me my marriage in my 30s. A little over a year ago, at age 58, I finally had enough courage – no, that’s not right – I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and sought help from my GP.

I’ve had long periods when I could simply work through it and eventually feel better. Then it comes back again. This time is the worst since my marriage ended back in 1993.

My GP is great and we’re working on it and I’m better than a year go. My question is: Is there a reliable (and inexpensive) blood test to see which chemicals/amino acids are insufficient? I think it would save a tremendous amount of time.

The serotonin reuptake inhibitors don’t seem to be doing the trick.

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Hey Sigmund

Ken thank you very much for your comment – it means a lot. Your question is a very good one. I’m not sure about the answer. As far as I know, there isn’t an objective way to test for the biomarkers of depression, but a GP would probably be the best person to ask. The direction the depression research is heading in is fairly new, so hopefully there will be new tests and treatment options on the way. You were right the first time when you called it courage. Depression is so depleting and if you don’t know what’s behind it, it can be so confusing and it takes a major push to take the step to find out what’s happening – and you did that. Now it’s about exploring what will work for you to help you find relief from your symptoms.

If the serotonin reuptake inhibitors aren’t working, here are a couple of articles that might be worth reading or discussing with your GP. The first two are about the role of the gut. There is a lot of research that has found that there is a strong connection between the brain and the gut and when the environment of the gut is out, it can compromise mental health https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/ and https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-depression-gut-bacteria/.

This one talks about other ways to improve depressive symptoms https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/. In the meantime, know that there is a lot of research happening in the area of depression, and a lot of new avenues being explored. It’s great that you have found a GP you trust and can work with. That partnership can be a really important one. Don’t lose hope – they really are getting closer to figuring out how to beat this.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Hi Ken! I sometimes say I was born depressed, since it was something I’ve suffered with for a long, long time. When the teen years arrived, depression and mood swings took off big time.

After reacting to an antibiotic in a way that supposedly the pharmacists “never heard of”–my depression not only worsened but I began to have audio/visual hallucinations–my psychiatrist was the one who believed me. He said that antibiotics can play awful havoc with our gut flora, and this in turn can effect what and how our brain chemicals react.

There is much truth in this article, and more hope for the future!

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Sarah

Hi there I am a biotechnology student and would love to read the paper that this article refers to if you can maybe email me the authors, year and title. Last week I lost my cousin to depression and it seems to be rife within my family. Reading your article has sparked inspiration in me so thank you for sharing it.

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Juliette

Yup! Even though I’m on meds, they are not truly helping so needed another med to boost my motivation levels to be productive. I hate taking meds and sometimes I forget. Then the panic sets in

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Hey Sigmund

Juliette I completely understand the love-hate relationship with meds. There is so much research happening at the moment that’s bringing us closer to finding better treatment options. Hang in there.

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Kay

Hi, love your insight..
I read an article a couple years ago (I think it was Psychology Today, I was in a waiting room) talking about new findings on the brain because of a new way to study the physical brain itself..
Long story short, the conclusion of the article brought up the idea that depression is also an inflammation in(?) the brain (caused by trauma, physical and mental stress) and they suggested things like Curcumin might reduce depression in up to 80% of people suffering from it..
Have you heard of this? I’ll try to find a link but I’m limited in my computer skills, soo…
Thanks, Kay

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Kay,

I’m not sure about the exact article you’re referring to but there is certainly a ton of research happening at the moment that is pointing to depression being caused by inflammation that could be brought on by things like stress, trauma, illness, allergies, environmental toxins. Here is an article that explains the connection between depression and inflammation https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/.

Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory and the research shows that it’s great for brain health. Here’s an article about that https://www.heysigmund.com/this-helps-heal-your-brain-and-its-probably-in-your-pantry/. We’re learning a lot about the things we can do to strengthen the brain. The idea that we can actually change our brain has only come about in the last decade or so but it’s changing the way we think about mental health – all for the better. Here are a couple of articles that talk about that, if you are interested:
>> Simple Ways to Supercharge Mental Health and Brain Performance: https://www.heysigmund.com/simple-ways-to-supercharge-brain-health-and-mental-performance/
>> The Non-Medication Ways to Deal With Depression that are as Effective as Medication https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/

I hope this helps.

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L

This all makes so much sense to me. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for as along as I can remember and it has got worse over the last few years. I have tried soo many different antidepressants and I always have bad side effects from them and have to stop and I’m thinking what is wrong with me!? Am I making it all up!? I cannot see a light at the end, I feel like I am just going to keep getting worse, I’m not living, just struggling and existing. I am a mother of 2 (separated from their dad 3 and half years ago) and being the way I am is no good, I don’t feel like a good mum, I’m always stressed and I shout a lot which I absolutely hate and I don’t want my kids to end up the same as me! I attempted suicide a year and a half ago and I have these thoughts ALOT!! I feel so hopeless and worthless and I just want to be and feel normal!! I had my 2nd son dec 2012, got sterilised in 2013 and then diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014. I tried accupuncture last year but its so expensive so I couldn’t continue with the treatment. Can u recommend natural treatment that can help me to feel better?? I get so overwhelmed trying to find things that will work as there’s many conflicting stories and also so many different options and I don’t know which ones are best and actually contain the right ingredients and not all the bad stuff! Sorry I’m not very good at putting my thoughts or explaining things properly, apparently down to ‘brain fog’ from fibro!
Thanks

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Penel

My friend who suffered from depression and anxiety died from a massive heart attack. He had had to decrease his depression meds because they conflicted with his heart meds.
This article explains a lot, as he was trying very hard to eat right, etc.
Thank you.

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Trella

I would like to know about alternative ways of treating depression in light of it being more than just a mental illness and getting away from the traditional antidepressants.

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Hey Sigmund

Trella, there is still so much we don’t know but the research is heading in a really positive direction. If you are on medication, it’s important not to give that up or reduce the dosage without the close supervision of a doctor. Even if you are on medication though, there are things you can do to strengthen your mind and body against depression. Here is some information that might help you https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/.

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Alexa

Thank you for this article. I remember hearing Andrew Solomon say, during one of his TED Talks, that “the opposite of depression is not happiness; it is vitality.” Suddenly, my lifelong experience with this condition began to make sense. I’m in full agreement that depression is a whole-body, whole-person condition. In my own situation, depression was incited by a two-month premature birth in the late 1950s — the medical protocol of the time forbade parental contact with preemies, so I did not bond with my mother, or with any other adult. My doctor — a gem — and I have discovered, through research, a variant on depression in infants — anaclitic depression, which is also known as “failure to thrive.” The best medicine for my variant has always been, and always will be, body-based. Diet, hydration, walking, gentle movement, restful sleep, and most of all, loving bonds that include lots of touch. I believe there is a strong link between depression — I see it as a functional as well as a structural disorder — and trauma … Unattended grief is also a factor. Social, environmental, and relational breakdowns almost guarantee that depression will result (you speak to this in saying that “modern living makes us vulnerable”) … Its genesis in each person is as unique as a fingerprint … and so is its treatment. Articles such as this inch us closer to a wiser and more compassionate understanding …

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Kerry

I have a daughter that has been struggling with anxiety and depression for the last year. We have not found an antidepressant thhaatt hhas worked yet. She eats pretty healthy. She is currently doing DBT therapy. Are there any other suggestions? She is not a good sleeper so her anxiety medication is suppose to help her with sleep.

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Karen Young

Mindfulness and exercise are really important. They have both been shown by plenty of research to have the capacity to strengthen the brain against anxiety and depression. Here are a couple
Of articles that will explain how they work and why they are so important https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/ and https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/.

Mindfulness can also be a way to help her find calm before sleep. I hope your daughter is able to find some relief soon.

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Mimi

If she’s not into athletics, get her into one. One that she enjoys, and will want to do regularly. With others in a supportive environment.

Get her a regular creative outlet, if she doesn’t already have one.

Find her a weekly support group of people her age.

Good luck.

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Kathi

Oh wow! This is so inspiring!!!! I’ve been wondering about this for some time – I’d do anything to stop taking tablets! I was diagnosed with bipolarII one year ago but I’m even questioning that now. Hmm …. thank you so much!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Kathi. The the research is really opening up in relation to depression, and it’s making a lot of sense. It’s all good news for possible new treatment options – hopefully we will have some soon. Keep working with your doctor in relation to your tablets, and he or she will be able to keep you in touch with possible new treatment options when they are found.

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Shilpa

Thank you…great article and makes sense completely and yes it needs to be looked at in new light.

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Anne R

Finally! For those of us with a loved one who struggles significantly from depression, and who hasn’t found any benefit from anti-depressants, this info is timely and critical. Hopefully the medical community will quickly get on board. Thank you so much for this article.

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KarenB

I am interested in hearing what people say about this very interesting article.

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Sharon Hutchinson

This makes perfect sense. It is the same with migraines, which are also systemic. When I called a headache specialist, the first question I was asked was “Are you calling about a headache or a migraine?” in this case, the headache is just the most obvious symptom, but actually most other body systems are involved as well.

We are discovering more and more how the entire body is interconnected. Finally!

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Margaret O'Quigley

I have always believed and it is well understood the body and the mind are so connected . It makes perfect sense.
Margaret O’Ouigley
MIACP

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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