Depression Is A Symptom - Not The DiseaseDepression has grown to epidemic proportions. In 2014, an estimated 15.7 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. According To the CDC, about one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes antidepressant medication. For more startling statistics, just take a look at the infographic at the end of this article. It shows the number of people diagnosed with the condition increases by about a whopping 20% every year.

The numbers are telling us — no, screaming at us — that what we’ve been doing isn’t working!

In the 1960s, we were told depression was due to a deficiency of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Then, a still popular theory, blamed it on too little serotonin. Today, we know that it’s much more complicated than either of these. According to Harvard Medical School, millions of chemical reactions in the brain work to regulate mood, perceptions, and how you experience life. To be sure, the chemicals in your head are involved depression, but it’s not as simple as one chemical being too low and another too high.

In the article, Depression: It’s Not Your Serotonin, Dr. Kelly Brogan MD posits that as one of only two countries that allows direct to consumer advertising, we have undoubtedly been subjected to the idea that brain chemicals as the cause of depression by pharmaceutical companies. She provides ample scientific evidence for the statement:

What if I told you that, in six decades of research, the serotonin (or norepinephrine, or dopamine) theory of depression and anxiety has not achieved scientific credibility.

In the aforementioned article and in her book, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives, Brogan calls for the monoamine theory of depression, citing neurochemicals as the cause, to be laid to rest. She proposes that people benefitting from antidepressants are experiencing a learned placebo effect, and that the medications are harmful. In the short-term, they increase suicide risk, and may even be depressogenic, inducing the depressed state and disabling the body’s self-healing potential, with long-term use.

Depression Is An Epigentic Syndrome

It isn’t my intent to bash antidepressants here. I know people who have found them tremendously helpful, and I know people (like myself – I tried to commit suicide two weeks into a new antidepressant. Read my story here.) who have found them extremely harmful.

My point is that with the alarming growth and relapse rates of depression, even with the use of these medications, we have got to figure out a better solution.

Dr. Brogan suggests that depression is not a brain disorder, the lack of one neurochemical or another, or a genetic illness. It’s an inflammatory condition which is the body’s adaptive response to stress, known as the cytokine theory of depression. The state of depression is a manifestation of irregularities in a body that can start far away from the brain and have nothing to do with chemical balances in it.

She calls depression an “epigenetic syndrome.” In How Your Thoughts Change Your Brain, Cells, And Genes, I explain epigenetics as:

The fast growing field of epigenetics is proving that who you are is the product of the things that happen to you in your life, which change the way your genes operate. Genes are actually switched on or off depending on your life experiences, and your genes and lifestyle form a feedback loop. Your life doesn’t alter the genes you were born with. What changes is your genetic activity, meaning the hundreds of proteins, enzymes, and other chemicals that regulate your cells.

So, in other words, Brogan proposes that it’s a lifestyle disease turned on by your genes in response to stress, but depression isn’t the root disease itself. It’s the outward expression of imbalance in the body, the symptom. It’s the body alerting you to the fact that something is wrong. By taking antidepressants, we’re merely suppressing the symptoms, not addressing the real cause.

Seeing Depression As An Opportunity

Brogan encourages us to view depression as an opportunity to stop and figure out what our body is trying to tell us. If you had pain in your swollen ankle which persisted for a week until you couldn’t put any weight on it, you wouldn’t just take painkillers, relieving the symptoms, and consider it resolved. Same with depression. It’s your body telling you that something is wrong and needs attention. Brogan says it’s a “lifestyle crisis that demands a reset.”

In A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives, she writes:

It’s a signal that the interconnected systems of the body are out of balance — from blood sugar to gut health to thyroid function — and inflammation is at the root. 

Lifestyle interventions are the prescription Brogan offers for healing the inflammation in the body, causing depression. Dietary interventions, detoxing your life, improving sleep, and stress management practices, such as meditation and exercise, are the tools every single person has available to overcome depression (and other illnesses) and change their lives for the better. In her book, Brogan offers a step-by-step action plan to start the healing process.

Depression statistics

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    That’s very interesting! A completely different take on depression.

  2. Interestingly enough Debbie the one occasion that this happy, clappy me experienced depression even in a slight form was before I was diagnosed with a hyper active thyroid…once I managed to get that under control I was back to feeling my usual self.

    This fits in perfectly with what you were saying. Nice article. 🙂

    • Thank you, Elle. We need to start looking at depression as a reason to explore physical imbalances, not just try to mask the symptoms. I too had a thyroid disorder. Both depression and it healed simultaneously. I don’t take meds for it or depression anymore.

      • Bequi Livingston Reply

        Thanks for the great discussion since I too suffer from Hashimoto’s Immune Disorder, Gluten Intolerance, Depression and Anxiety. I have gone gluten, dairy and sugar free and still working on the thyroid. However, it’s almost impossible to find practitioners who will support a holistic approach, My Psych is scolding me for being proactive in doing my homework. Wish there were more Holistic/functional Medicine Mental Health practitioners out there. Thanks for all that you are doing … Bq

        • I applaud your efforts, Bequi. Sounds like you are on the right track and are healing yourself. Sounds like you need to find a different Psych! I can tell you that when I was healing from my brain injury, I got told by medical “professionals” not to waste my money on the things that ultimately healed me. Follow your own body’s wisdom and find practitioners in line with your holistic approach.

    • Hi Suzie, Congratulations on overcoming depression. Can you share how you overcame it. I’m suffering anxiety (I appear perky and the most positive person around but suffer internally) and there is nothing in my external world that I can obviously see causing it. It makes no sense to me. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Hi Suzie, Congratulations on overcoming depression. Can you share how you overcame it. I’m suffering anxiety (I appear perky and the most positive person around but suffer internally) and there is nothing in my external world that I can obviously see causing it. It makes no sense to me. Any help would be appreciated.

  3. Thanks, Iva! The general attitude of the medical community is sad, but what I find even more distressing is all the people who just want a simple fix in a pill. I used to be one of them. Never worked! Lifestyle changes did for me. I’m betting they will for lots of others too. All the best to you and your brain.

    • Can you share more about how your lifestyle changes helped? Please?

      My lifestyle seems to be on track but I can’t overcome this anxiety that may end up leading to depression. I walk 5 days a week, strength train 3 days a week, stopped drinking coffee (which WAS twice a day), eliminated all preworkouts (full of caffeine), drink 2-3 litres a water a day, have a very enjoyable and happy work environment, have a fairly good home life with happy healthy children. I eat very well. I eat mainly a plant based diet with a little bit of meat. I consume Omega 3’s both from grass fed cows and fish and plants (avocados etc) as well as taking a supplment. I get Vitamin D3 and magnesium.

      I spend time grounding with the earth at the beach and spend time in nature. I have slowed down in almost everything so that I can relax, enjoying meditation.

      Recently someone said I may be estrogen dominant and likely copper toxic and so I started taking zinc yesterday.

      Someone else mentioned my adrenal glands have worked overdrive and need to be reset and the zinc would help.

      This has been ongoing for 5 years. Surely they would have been reset by now.

      Dr’s can’t find anything in my blood, adrenals are good. Was a little low on Vitamin D which I’ve fixed. A tried a therapist and he couldn’t work it out.

      There is no obvious danger to me and I can’t switch off this lizard brain. My jaw is locked and I have a headache and dont know how to stop feeling this way.

      I actually try and speak to my prefrontal cortex and tell it to kick in and save me but it seems to be asleep

      Can anyone help me?

      • Sounds like you are doing all the right things and on the right path exploring various solutions. I would encourage you to keep consciously trying to change your brain and trying different alternatives, medically and otherwise. Everyone’s case is unique and you have to find what works for you. Keep searching. You will get there.

  4. Love this distinction and classification on Depression Debbie! I love how all the info here is SO imperative to understanding depression for all. The graphics are great!
    xoxo, Z~

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  9. Mark Slaney Reply

    Exercise, a supplement called Nitrovit (or sometimes Piracetam as Nitro needs to be cycled), sunshine, and GoLite (a blue light emitting lamp that combats SAD – seasonal associated disorder) are the only things I’ve found to work. That and talking about it. If I have a particularly grey day I’ll put the video camera on and talk about how I’m feeling. It’s like having an artificial therapist without the hourly bill. I usually keep the videos I make, or delete them, but never share.

    I’m blessed that it doesn’t happen often (the supplements help) but my god is it awful when it does. I usually try to sleep it off. Best I have ever felt was after yoga. I start again next week. I feel for people dealing with this daily, and soldiers suffering from shell shock.

    Great article, and yes, I was led to believe it came from lack of either Dopamine or Serotonin.

    • Mark,

      Good for you. Sounds like you are doing a lot right for yourself. That’s just it. We all have to find what is going to work for us. It’s different for everyone – regardless of the real cause of depression. I can honestly say that after being depressed for decades and recovering, I have not had a depressive episode again. For me, it’s a lifestyle and a way of thinking that prevents it.

      • Mark Slaney Reply

        Well said Debbie. There are many undiscussed causes to depression – because they are far more complex issues than taking a pill, eating right, or getting more sleep. Environment plays a huge role – and working from home I move my office around and the direction my desk faces every 3-4 months to break things up and create change. Working for myself from home has helped me a lot, as playing second fiddle to a boss always caused me anguish and frustration. I also moved to Thailand because I am happiest in the sunshine. Not things everyone can do, but at least giving thought to these issues can sometimes help shed light on things.

        Keep up the great work x

        • Thank you, Mark. I work from home too – for myself. I would have a very hard time adhering to a strict schedule where I couldn’t stop and take a yoga class or go for a walk or take a nap…. Sounds like you have made your happiness and health priorities. Good for you. That’s what it’s all about.

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  11. This good, but there are mental health issues that are caused by imbalances in the brain and how it functions. Depression and anxiety play a part in those illnesses. When we put forth research like this we have to be careful to make room for these mental health issues. We are just getting people to understand it is okay to seek help with these issues. It is true even with these mental health issues, self-help tools you put forth help, but do not replace the medication that is needed. As a person that has a mental health issue and the times in my life that I thought I could control myself without medication all ended in hospital stays and major life upsets. Now I focus on making myself the best I can be while taking all of my meds. It is remains me of the danger of telling a person on heart medication that a life style change is what is called for instead of the medication. When in fact both are called for and it is okay to take the medication.

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