Depression is common: 10% of all men and 20% of all women have a period of depression in their lives. In people with medical illnesses depression is more common: 20% to 40% (Ref.1).
The peak age for depression is usually the age of 25 to 44. There are special groups where depression is also common. In adolescents 5% are affected with depression and 13% of women tend to get depressed after delivery, a condition called postpartum depression.
In any age group with depression there is a risk of suicide, but with adolescents this is particularly true.
About 10% to 15% of people with general medical illness are developing depression, such as patients with Parkinson’s disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiac disease, HIV infection, end-stage renal failure and cancer.
Causes of depression
Officially it is not known what causes depression. That is what medical textbooks say. However, other books like Datis Kharrazian’s book “Why isn’t my brain working?” offers several scenarios that can cause depression and he has examples of cases that were cured of depression (Ref.2). He points out that deficiencies in two major brain transmitters can cause depression: serotonin and dopamine.
- Serotonin is produced in the midbrain from the amino acid tryptophan in two biochemical steps. These biochemical conversions require iron, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, niacin, folic acid and magnesium as co-factors. But you also need the “large neutral amino acid transporter” (LNAA) to transport tryptophan through the blood/brain barrier into the brain.
- Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the frontal lobes of the brain. It is also necessary for learning. Dopamine is synthetized by the brain from tyrosine, which has to be manufactured in the liver from the amino acid phenylalanine. You need to have a healthy liver to produce tyrosine, which needs to be transported through the blood/brain barrier into the brain; similar to tryptophan this requires the “large neutral amino acid transporter” (LNAA). People with hepatitis, fatty liver, insulin resistance or diabetes may have problems with the LNAA transporter, which can cause dopamine deficiency (Ref.2). But as mentioned earlier they may also have low serotonin because tryptophan was not transported into the brain. This will happen with sugar overconsumption, as insulin resistance develops and affects the LNAA transporter resulting in both low serotonin and dopamine (Ref.2).
- Since the 1990’s it is known that inflammation is also a possible factor in the causation of neurological disease including depression. Ref. 2 points out that gut issues can become brain issues as inflammatory substances can leak trough a leaky gut into the blood stream and trough a leaky blood/brain barrier into the brain. Hypothyroidism can activate brain inflammation and lead to an imbalance of the neurotransmitters. Gluten sensitivity is also an important cause of depression through the inflammatory connection, but few physicians recognize the full impact of this.
Tests for depression
There are no laboratory tests that would define depression. However, every patient should be checked for hypothyroidism, a common cause of depression. If hypothyroidism is found, this can easily be treated by thyroid hormone replacement.
Otherwise the diagnosis of depression is made based on mental status examination, history and review of symptoms. A good start is to ask: “In the past 2 weeks how little interest or pleasure in doing things have you had?” and “Have you been feeling down, depressed, or hopeless in the past 2 weeks?” (Ref.3).
There are detailed psychometric questionnaires available such as the Beck Depression Inventory that can assist the physician to establish the diagnosis.
Myths of depression
One of the myths regarding depression is that it would be contagious. A study on 2000 high school students showed that depression was not infective. The contrary was true: human interaction with friends who had a “healthy mood” improved depression. By the same token, when you constantly compare yourself with your Facebook friends, and you are not in the best mood, your mood may worsen and you could become depressed.
Treatment of depression
Despite advances in the treatment of depression the response rate with antidepressant therapy is limited to 60% to 70%. According to Ref.4 inadequate dosing and misdiagnoses account for the fact that 30% to 40% of treated people with depression have treatment failures. Typically the first antidepressant involves a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), but newer trials have shown that the older monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) have a higher success rate when treating depression initially (Ref.4).
A good antidepressant for mild to moderate depression is St. John’s wort, which is recommended by Ref. 5 as having less side-effects as other antidepressants.
In treatment resistant depression the psychiatrist often employs other combinations of antidepressants. In addition cognitive/behavioral therapy is added, which makes the overall treatment more successful. It goes without saying that complicated cases of depression belong into the hands of an experienced psychiatrist.
Unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to have a mental disease like depression and people are in deep denial. Friends who do not understand depression may inadvertently say things that make the symptoms of the depressed person more severe and distance themselves at a time when they would need support from friends. The end result is loneliness, feelings of being misunderstood and having suicidal thoughts. Often it is men who will resist seeking treatment for depression, women are better in getting treatment started.
This is where a psychiatrist needs to intervene. If this does not happen, people start attempting suicide and finally commit suicide. In the US committed suicides have a gender ratio of male to female of 3:1 to 10:1. These situations become very difficult. The family needs to step in and talk to the patient. It is best to accompany the patient to the hospital for an assessment. Going to the hospital may be done privately or by ambulance. Don’t be shy to call 911 for an ambulance. Better to be cautious than have a major crisis that ends in completed suicide.
Alternative depression treatments
There are alternative treatments for depression.
But it is not as powerful according to Ref. 3 as unitemporal electroconvulsive therapy.
2. Bifrontal electroconvulsive therapy (ECT): Electroconvulsive therapy with two pedals applied to the front of the skull appears to have the best results in terms of treating depression.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are powerful anti-inflammatory agents, which will take care of the inflammatory component of depression. Both fish oil and krill oil in combination give the optimal response as outlined here.
4. Vitamin D3 is also anti-inflammatory and will contribute to an improvement with existing depression, but it also helps prevent the development of depression when taken in regularly as a supplement.
5. Light box therapy: The observation of seasonal affective disorder (SADS) can develop as a result of lack of light. This has led to the discovery that light boxes are helpful for treating depression and also for prevention of depression due to seasonal affective disorder.
A light box should be used for 30 minutes every morning during the fall and winter months. The box should emit at least 10,000 lux. Improvement can occur within 2 to 4 days of starting light therapy, but often it takes up to 4 weeks to reach its full benefit.
6. It is known for a long time that alcohol is a depressant; it can actually cause depression and in persons with bipolar disease it can trigger a flare-up of that disorder as well.
7. Finally it matters what you eat: sugar and too much starchy foods (high glycemic index carbs) lead to insulin overproduction and insulin resistance. This causes inflammation, and this will cause depression. As mentioned earlier it also lowers the two key brain transmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
The solution is an anti-inflammatory diet, the Mediterranean diet without sugar and high glycemic index carbs; only low glycemic index carbs are allowed. This will normalize insulin production and eliminates inflammation.
8. Vitamin supplements: Folate and vitamin B12: Up to 1/3 of depressed people have folate deficiency. Supplementation with 400 mcg to 1 mg of folic acid is recommended. Vitamin B12 should also be taken to not mask a B12 deficiency (Ref.5). Folate and vitamin B12 are methyl donors for several brain neuropeptides.
9. Electro acupuncture has been shown in many studies to be effective in ameliorating the symptoms of depression and seems to work through the release of neurotransmitters in the brain (Ref.6).
10. Exercise on a regular basis helps to equalize the mood and seems to exert a slight anti-depressant effect on the person who engages in regular physical activity.
I have attempted to show the complexity of depression and what is known about its causes and treatment. Very likely there are several causes for depression and further research will hopefully bring more clarity to this. Treatment modalities, both conventional and unconventional have been developed over the years by trial and error. The physician and patient need to use common sense: if a treatment is working, stick to it and use it. If it does not work, move on and try something else. More difficult cases should be referred to a psychiatrist who has the most experience with difficult to treat cases. Do not neglect life-style factors and alternative depression treatments as they can often help to stabilize depression significantly. We all must be vigilant about suicide risks in depressed patients and act by calling 911, if necessary to intervene.
More info on depression: http://nethealthbook.com/mental-illness-mental-disorders/mood-disorders/depression/
1. Depression, Major: Fred F. Ferri M.D., F.A.C.P., Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2016, by Elsevier, Inc.
2. Dr. Datis Kharrazian: “Why Isn’t My Brain Working?” © 2013, Elephant Press, Carlsbad, CA 92011
3. Goldman-Cecil Medicine “Major depressive disorder” 2016, by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier Inc.
4. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry, Second Edition: Theodore A. Stern MD, Maurizio Fava MD, Timothy E. Wilens MD and Jerrold F. Rosenbaum MD © 2016, Elsevier Inc.
5. Rakel: Integrative Medicine, 3rd ed. © 2012 Saunders.
6. George A. Ulett, M.D., Ph.D. and SongPing Han, B.M., Ph.D.: “The Biology of Acupuncture”, copyright 2002, Warren H. Green Inc., Saint Louis, Missouri, 63132 USA