According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 400 million people, of all ages, suffer from depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide.
This is a massive target market for pharmaceutical companies, and that’s no secret. There are huge profits to be had, and drug companies are taking every opportunity to make the most of this seemingly limitless source of income — at the expense of the consumer. It is not difficult to find evidence to support this notion, and a recent study published in the British Medical Journal is just one of many compelling examples. The study showed that pharmaceutical companies were not disclosing all information regarding the results of their drug trials. Researchers looked at documents from 70 different double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) and found that the full extent of serious harm in clinical study reports went unreported.
And it’s not the first time this has happened.
Not feeling well can take a toll on your physical health in a number of ways; when it comes to the brain, episodes of constant depression can actually reduce the size of your hippocampus — an area of the brain involved in forming and regulating emotions and memory. This is especially concerning for teenagers, given their brains are still developing in significant ways.
There is good news, however: the damage can be reversed, and you can change your brain in a number of different ways, but to do so requires you to make the decision to help yourself and then act on it.
Depression and Your Brain
Several studies have stated that depressed people tend to have a smaller hippocampus. According to Professor Ian Hickie of The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute:
[The] more episodes of depression a person had, the greater the reduction in hippocampus size. So recurrent or persistent depression does more harm to the hippocampus the more you leave it untreated.
This largely settles the question of what comes first: the smaller hippocampus or the depression? The damage to the brain comes from recurrent illness…
Other studies have demonstrated reversibility, and the hippocampus is one of the unique areas of the brain that rapidly generates new connections between cells, and what are lost here are connections between cells rather than the cells themselves.
Treating depression effectively does not just mean medicines. If you are unemployed, for example, and then sit in a room doing nothing as a result, this can shrink the hippocampus. So social interventions are just as important, and treatments such as fish oils are also thought to be neuro-protective.
It’s also noteworthy to mention here that feelings of sadness and negativity can code different information into the heart’s electromagnetic field, and the heart will actually send signals to the brain that can create chaos in the nervous system. These findings come from the scientists at the Institute of HeartMath, who investigate heart and brain interaction.
Scientists have also used brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data to test the hypothesis that depression changes the brain. For example, an international team of researchers found those who suffered from recurring depression do indeed have a smaller hippocampus.
Chemical Imbalance or Not?
Joseph Coyle, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School, perhaps sums it up best when he explains that this idea of a “chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It’s much more complicated than that.” And it’s true; depression cannot truly be reduced to the commonly accepted notion of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Posed in the late 1950s, this theory essentially posits that depression is a deficiency of select neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) at critical points, like synapses. One of these neurotransmitters is serotonin; others include norepinephrine and dopamine.
As Scientific American reports, “much of the general public seems to have accepted the chemical imbalance hypothesis uncritically,” but “it is very likely that depression stems from influences other than neurotransmitter abnormalities.”
Harvard Medical School also put out a press release a few years ago stating it’s “often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is.” Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, a prominent author and British psychiatrist, explains further:
Of course, there are brain events and biochemical reactions occurring when someone feels depressed, as there are all the time, but no research has ever established that a particular brain state causes, or even correlates with, depression. . . . In all cases studies yield inconsistent results, and none have been shown to be specific to depression, let alone causal. . . . The fact that more than 50 years of intense research efforts have failed to identify depression in the brain may indicate that we simply lack the right technology, or it may suggest we have been barking up the wrong tree!
The most commonly cited evidence to support the chemical imbalance theory is the ability of some drugs to increase and decrease mood in human and animal models. While many antidepressants increase the amounts of serotonin and other neurotransmitters at synapses, they do not address the underlying issues or help the brain heal itself. And what we fail to realize today is that just because mood can be artificially manipulated with drugs does not mean that depression cannot be treated in other ways, or that the chemical imbalance theory is true.
We are simply incapable of saying with certainty that a human being has a chemical imbalance (to whatever extent) or identifying what neurotransmitters are involved. This is why the chemical imbalance theory of depression remains a theory. Chemical levels in the brain cannot accurately be measured or ‘looked at,’ either.
Yet much of the general public still accepts the chemical imbalance theory. A survey conducted in 2007 of 262 undergraduates at Cleveland State University found more than 80% of the participants found it “likely” that chemical imbalances cause depression. Yet according to Jonathan Leo, an associate professor of neuroanatomy at Lincoln Memorial University, this really has yet to be proven: “At best, drug-induced affective disturbances can only be considered models for natural disorders, while it remains to be demonstrated that the behavioral changes produced by these drugs have any relation to naturally occurring biochemical abnormalities which might be associated with the illness.
It’s important to keep in mind there are probably many chemicals involved, working both inside and outside of our nerve cells. As Harvard Medical School points out, there are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system responsible for your mood, perceptions, and experience of life.
Jonathan Leo further points out that “the cause of mental disorders such as depression remains unknown. However, the idea that neurotransmitter imbalances cause depression is vigorously promoted by pharmaceutical companies and the psychiatric profession at large.”
As I hope I have made clear, the theory that depression is caused by low levels of serotonin, along with similar such theories, came into existence because scientists were able to observe what drugs do to the brain. It is a hypothesis that attempted to explain how drugs were able to fix the problem, but whether or not depressed people actually have lower serotonin levels remains to be proven.
“The serotonin theory is simply not a scientific statement. It’s a botched theory – a hypothesis that was proven incorrect.”
– Dr. Joseph Mercola
Not only is there no solid scientific proof to back up the chemical imbalance theory, many depressed people are not even helped by taking antidepressants like SSRIs. For example, a review done by the University of California in 2009 found one third of people treated with antidepressants do not improve, and a significant portion of these people remain depressed. Scientific American too points out that “if antidepressants correct a chemical imbalance that underlies depression, all or most depressed people should get better after taking them.”
That being said, there are many who do report positive benefits, but there is no way to tell if the drugs are working or if they are just working like a placebo.
Think about this for a moment: So many of us are made to believe that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, when there is actually little scientific evidence to support that statement. Association between various brain changes and depression is large, and no studies have established a solid, cause-and-effect correlation between the brain and the disorder.
Depression science has one focus — brain chemistry — despite it being a multi-faceted problem. Focusing on this one theory and then dishing out drugs that alter brain chemistry is, as Scientific American puts it, simply “shortsighted.”
“In spite of the enormous amounts of money and time that has been spent on the quest to confirm the chemical imbalance theory, direct proof has never materialized.”
I am astounded that people fail to see the irony in the situation. The only chemical imbalances we can prove exist in people’s brains are the ones being inflicted upon them by psychiatric drugs.
There Are Other Biological Factors Implicated in Depression
As Dr. Mercola points out:
Contrary to popular belief, depression is not likely caused by unbalanced brain chemicals; however there are a number of other biological factors that appear to be highly significant. Chronic inflammation is one such factor.5
Scientists have also found that your mental health can be adversely impacted by factors such as vitamin D deficiency and/or unbalanced gut flora — both of which, incidentally, play a role in keeping inflammation in check, which is really what the remedy to depression is all about.
He also talks about sugar, which is extremely toxic to the body and a catalyst for multiple diseases.
Some Great Ways to Combat Depression
Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that the brain can change and adapt. The concept is now being used to treat learning disabilities, brain damage, chronic pain, and more. A great person to learn more about this from is Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself. He writes:
The idea that the brain is plastic in the sense of changeable, adaptable and malleable is the single most important change in our understanding of the human brain in four hundred years. Neuroplasticity is that property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and its function, it’s a response to sensing and perceiving the world, even to thinking and imagining. Human thoughts and learning actually turn on certain genes in our nerve cells which allow those cells to make new connections between them.
Simply put, the way you think can change your brain. This is not a new idea, and it has been demonstrated by a number of experiments, ranging from quantum physics, where factors associated with conscious can change the behaviour of an atom, to placebo studies, which demonstrate the power of the mind.
For example, a Baylor School of Medicine study, published in 2002 in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at surgery for patients with severe and debilitating knee pain. Many surgeons know there is no placebo effect in surgery, or so most of them believe. The patients were divided into three groups. The surgeons shaved the damaged cartilage in the knee of one group. For the second group they flushed out the knee joint, removing all of the material believed to be causing inflammation. Both of these processes are the standard surgeries people who have severe arthritic knees must undergo. The third group received a “fake” surgery; the patients were sedated and then tricked into thinking they had actually undergone knee surgery. Doctors made the incisions and splashed salt water on the knee as they would in normal surgery, then sewed up the incisions like the real thing. All three groups went through the same rehab process, and the results were astonishing. The placebo group improved just as much as the other two groups who had surgery.
“My skill as a surgeon had no benefit on these patients. The entire benefit of surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee was the placebo effect.”
– Dr. Moseley (surgeon involved in the study) (Lipton, Bruce. The Biology of Belief. Hay House, Inc, 2005)
The power of the placebo effect was also clearly demonstrated in a report published by the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 1999. It discovered that half of severely depressed patients taking drugs improve compared to the 32% taking a placebo. Considering all of the side effects and dangers associated with antidepressant use, this marginal difference hardly seems worthwhile. And let’s not forget that the antidepressant industry is a multi-billion dollar one.
A 2002 article published in the American Psychological Association’s Prevention & Treatment by University of Connecticut psychology professor Irving Kirsch titled “The Emperor’s New Drugs” made some more shocking discoveries. Kirsch found that 80% of the effect of antidepressants, as measured in clinical trials, could be attributed to the placebo effect. This professor even had to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get information on the clinical trials of the top antidepressants. Kirsch found the difference between the response of the drugs and the response of the placebo was less than two points on average on this clinical scale that goes from 50-60 points. That difference, as Kirsch points out, is clinically meaningless.
Researchers all over the world have found that placebo treatments can stimulate real biological and physiological responses — everything from changes in heart rate to blood pressure and even chemical activity in the brain. It’s been effective with a number of different ailments, from arthritis and fatigue to depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s, and more. Why are we not utilizing our brain’s own remarkable ability to heal itself more often?
Take a look at these factors.
Added sugar and high fructose corn syrup
Genetically engineered (GE) ingredients (primarily corn, soy, and sugar beets) which, besides their own unknown health risks, also tend to be heavily contaminated with glyphosate—a Class 2A carcinogen that can also damage your gut microbiome and has been linked to antibiotic-resistance. Most conventional (non-GE) wheat is also treated with toxic glyphosate prior to harvesting.
By altering the balance of your gut flora, pesticides and herbicides also disrupt the production of essential amino acids like tryptophan, a serotonin precursor, and promote production of p-cresol, a compound that interferes with metabolism of other environmental chemicals, thereby increasing your vulnerability to their toxic effects.
Artificial sweeteners, along with thousands of food additives, most of which have never been tested for safety
Chemicals in the food packaging, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), bisphenol-S (BPS), and phthalates, which can migrate into the food
Exercise has been shown to effectively combat depression and help rebuild the hippocampus, and studies have shown very clear links between inactivity and depression. As Dr. Mercola tells us, women who sit for more than seven hours a day have a 47% higher risk of depression than women who sit for four hours or less per day. Furthermore, women who do no physical activity whatsoever have a 99% higher risk of developing depression compared to women who exercise. Studies have shown its efficiency typically surpasses that of antidepressant drugs, and it also helps rid your body of stress chemicals that can lead to depression.
As Forbes points out:
The practice appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the ‘me’ centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions. . . .
Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.