Nearly everyone feels sad or discouraged from time to time; these emotions are part of the ordinary ups and downs we experience throughout our lives. Such feelings usually dissipate after a day or two, and they do not affect our ability to function normally.
Many people, however, experience intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness that do not go away after just a few days.
These feelings can last for weeks, months, or even years; they may be accompanied by physical discomfort or illness, lack of interest in pursuits that used to be enjoyable, and an inability to perform ordinary activities in a normal fashion.
Chances are good that someone who is experiencing these symptoms may be suffering from depression. Also known as clinical or major depression, it is not simply an emotional problem. Depression is an imbalance of the chemicals in our brains which regulate our thoughts and moods. It is a disease which is physiological in nature, and it can be treated very effectively.
Historically, many people have been reluctant to seek medical help for symptoms of depression. They may feel that their symptoms are a sign of weakness, or that they are just “worrying too much,” or that they will eventually feel better on their own. Depression can also make people feel isolated; they may believe that no one would be interested in their problems.
But the truth is, depression does not go away on its own. People with depression are not weak, and they are not “worriers.” They have a disease which can be treated, and in most cases, cured. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you do not have to continue to suffer. There are many depression treatment options available, and most people who are being treated for depression begin to feel better within a few weeks.
Causes of Depression
Brain imaging of patients with depression has shown abnormal activity in the areas of the brain that control mood, behavior, and thought. The areas which regulate sleep patterns and appetite are also affected. Depression is a complex disorder, and doctors have not yet been able to determine a precise cause; however, it is believed that depression is influenced by the interactions of various biological, medical, and environmental factors.
Biological Causes of Depression
There is a great deal of evidence that genetics play a significant role in depression. The predisposition for depression appears to be hereditary, as the disease shows a tendency to run in families (although there are many people with depression who have no family history of depressive episodes). Researchers are working to isolate the genetic components which cause the abnormalities in brain function seen in patients with depression, but a specific gene responsible for the disorder has not yet been identified.
Our thoughts and moods are regulated by chemicals called neurotransmitters, which serve as messengers between the nerves in our brains and bodies. Studies have shown that people with depression have a smaller number of receptors in their brains for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a calming effect on our bodies when present at normal levels; norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, is also thought to be a factor in depression.
Cortisol, the “stress” hormone, is often present at higher levels in patients with depression than in those who have never experienced the disorder. Whether cortisol is a factor in causing depression or a result of having depression is not yet understood.
Deficiencies in the hormone estrogen have been associated with depression, especially in menopausal or post menopausal women, or those who have recently given birth. Low levels of testosterone may also factor into depression in men.
Medical Causes of Depression
In addition to the biological elements linked to depression, there are a number of medical factors associated with the disorder.
Patients with serious or chronic illnesses (such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, kidney or heart disease) may have an increased likelihood of suffering from depression. Medical professionals have observed that depression can aggravate other illnesses, as well, making them more difficult to treat.
Certain types of medications appear to cause depressive symptoms; these include barbiturates, beta-blockers, corticosteroids, and opioids (painkillers) such as morphine and codeine.
The thyroid gland produces various hormones that affect many of our metabolic functions. A condition known as hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid gland produces insufficient amounts of necessary hormones, can cause chemical imbalances which influence depression.
Environmental Causes of Depression
While there are hereditary and medical aspects which influence depression, depressive episodes are often set off by environmental triggers. Most of us periodically face stressful and difficult situations, but people with characteristics which predispose them to depression may experience these circumstances differently. When they are faced with divorce or difficulties in a relationship, the loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, or financial or job-related stress, these events may cause an episode of depression. People who have experienced one or more periods of depression, however, may suffer another depressive episode with no obvious external trigger.
Women who have recently given birth may experience symptoms of depression, as well. It is normal for women to have the “baby blues” for a short time after giving birth; however, a woman who has an extended period of depressive symptoms, including doubts about her ability to mother her child or fear for her infant, may be suffering from post-partum depression. This is relatively common and may have to do with the hormonal changes that occur after birth. Like depression, post-partum depression does not go away on its own and requires treatment and support for the mother.
Substance abuse has been linked to a high incidence of depression; many people who abuse drugs or alcohol also suffer from depression or other mental health disorders.
Symptoms of Depression
Symptoms of depression vary depending on the patient, but there are a number of common warning signs.
*Overwhelming feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or guilt.
*Hopelessness or lack of interest in the future
*A feeling of isolation, or that no one cares about you
*Lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
*Irritability or moodiness
*Decrease in appetite or overeating
*Insomnia or sleeping too much
*Chronic aches and pains
*Difficulties in close relationships
*Thoughts of suicide and death
If you or someone you love has any of these symptoms, the problem could be depression. It is important to seek treatment as soon as possible; the sooner that depression is treated, the greater the chances of eliminating the symptoms and preventing them from recurring.
If you suspect that you may have depression, various laboratory depression tests can help you to pinpoint what might be the cause.
*Neurotransmitter testing can detect levels of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters to pinpoint any deficiencies or imbalances.
*Thyroid testing can determine whether an under-active thyroid may be causing a hormone deficiency that could be responsible for your symptoms.
*Hormone tests can detect deficiencies in estrogen or testosterone, which can cause depressive symptoms.
*Vitamin analysis and nutritional testing are both useful in determining whether you have any dietary deficiencies that are associated with depression.
Depression and Diet
Dietary deficiencies are known to factor into depression. A number of vital nutrients influence our thoughts and moods; the B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin C, to name a few, are all important to our health and well-being. Deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals have been shown to cause symptoms of depression.
We all know that a healthy diet is critical to maintaining good physical health; the same thing applies to mental health. While a nutritionally sound diet is tremendously important, it can be difficult to get all the nutrients we need from the food that we eat. It is often necessary to use supplements to make up for dietary elements that our bodies lack.
Lifestyle Changes for Depression Sufferers
If depression is affecting your ability to enjoy life and maintain a sense of well-being, some basic changes in your lifestyle may help you to feel better.
*Watch what you eat. Proper nutrition is vital for promoting good mental health. Avoid foods high in fat and sugars that can inhibit the absorption of beneficial nutrients, and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains.
*Exercise. Along with keeping you in good physical form, exercise stimulates the production of natural endorphins, which induce feelings of well-being.
*Practice some form of relaxation to help eliminate stress.
*Change careers. If your job is overly stressful, a change in employment may be necessary to maintain your long-term health.
*Avoid alcohol and drug use. Alcohol and drugs may temporarily mask your symptoms, but they can ultimately lead to more severe depression and many other problems.
Natural Remedies for Depression
Antidepressants can be effective in treating depression, but many of them also produce unpleasant or dangerous side effects. There are natural remedies which can combat depression without the problems caused by conventional antidepressants. Depression supplements and herbal depression remedies can increase the brain’s supply of serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and other brain chemicals that affect one’s mood.
*Omega 3 fatty acids appear to help with the absorption of serotonin, which has a calming effect. Omega 3 supplements are helpful in easing depression. Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that stabilizes the brain cell membrane.
*5htp, manufactured by the body from L-tryptophan, is a compound needed for serotonin production. It is not readily available in most diets, but it can be taken as a serotonin supplement.
*St. John’s Wort is an herb containing the chemical hyperforin, which has been used effectively as an antidepressant.
*SAMe is a chemical that occurs naturally in our bodies and influences the function of neurotransmitters. Its antidepressant qualities are beneficial in treating depression.
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