Depression: A Big Picture Approach

According to Health Canada, approximately 16% of women and 11% of men will experience major depression in their lives. That doesn’t include those who may experience mild to moderate depression.

Depression can significantly impact quality of life, lead to lost time at school and work, affect relationships and contribute to other chronic diseases.

Antidepressant drugs are the mainstay of conventional treatment and generally target brain chemistry. Some people consider them to be a life saviour, while others find that the side effects outweigh the benefits.

For those who find antidepressants to be useful or who are in a critical situation, this article is not intended to dissuade you from using them. However, there is a deep ocean full of information that tells us that there is so much more to it. There may be other ways to support and heal the root cause of imbalance so that those who want to avoid medications might be able to. And those who take them might have a better chance to eventually discontinue.

Big Picture Approach

When I first see a new patient in my office, we have a long chat, not only do we discuss that person’s chief concerns but we also discuss other health conditions, their health history, how they sleep, the environment they live in, exercise, stress and trauma, the food they eat, their digestion, family history and how much time they spend outside. For women we talk about menstruation and hormonal health…the list goes on. All of these things might impact mood. We use this information to build a road map to help us understand the root cause of the problem and how we might bring that person back to health.

Chronic Inflammation and Depression

Researchers are now looking at chronic inflammation and its contribution to depression. One of the observations that led to this line of thinking was the association of depression-like symptoms (such as lethargy, sleep disturbance, concentration problems and suicidal thinking) in people taking a drug called Interferon for Hepatitis C and some types of cancer. Interferon contains chemicals called cytokines that are related to inflammation in our body. Indeed, similar chemicals have been found to be elevated in people with major depression who are otherwise physically healthy. Working to reduce inflammation in the body may therefore impact depression in a positive way.

Healthy Digestion and Mental Health

Our brains and our digestive tract are intimately connected. Have you ever heard of the enteric nervous system? This term refers to the two layers of more than 100 million nerve cells that line your digestive tract. This system communicates back and forth with your brain so problems in your digestive tract will affect your brain and vice versa.

Another line of research relating to the gut and mood is something called the microbiome, the aggregate of microorganisms that reside in your digestive system. Having a healthy microbiome is critical to our good health and it is thought to be important for our mental health specifically. Research is now being conducted to determine which bacteria have the greatest impact in this way. At present the exact reasons why gut bacteria influence our mood is not clear but one theory is that the reason revolves around inflammation (see above).

Of course, unhealthy digestion will also impact our ability to digest and absorb much needed nutrients needed for a happy, healthy functioning body and mind.

Consider a Well Rounded Approach

Holistic medicine, such as practised by naturopathic doctors has a lot to offer those suffering form depression and mental illness. Working to help decrease inflammation and achieve optimal nutrition, digestion and a healthy microbiome are just a sample of the many ways we might support optimal mood and long term mental health.

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