One of the most important findings from medical research over the past several years has been the significant link between inflammation and the onset of depression. So what is inflammation? How does it occur? How can it cause depression? And what can we do about it….??
What is inflammation?
Inflammation occurs as part of the immune system’s response to physical injury, wounding and infection. When the body recognises one of these threats it sends inflammatory cytokines to the site of injury or infection to help the body fight off the virus or bacteria. Humans have evolved with this incredible system of defence that is governed by our genes. It is critical for human health and wellbeing and without it we could not survive.
However, the problem is that this inflammatory response can also be triggered by modern day threats such as loosing your job, divorce, lack of financial security, relentless work stress, relationship issues, social isolation, social rejection, and lack of self worth. Furthermore, this inflammatory response can also be triggered by thoughts or imagined threats such as anxiety and constant worrying.
The body does not differentiate between the threat of a virus or injury with psychological stress and will increase production of inflammatory cytokines to deal with this threat. The problem with psychological stress is that it can be relentless and continue for long periods of times causing a person to become chronically inflamed.
What is the link between inflammation and depression?
These pro-inflammatory cytokines are able to communicate with the brain and initiate depressive behaviour such as sad mood, fatigue and social withdrawal. It is interesting that when you are sick with a virus you automatically want to retreat socially for a few days and often feel a bit sad.
These pro-inflammatory cytokines are more likely to get through to the brain when there is a leaky blood brain barrier. The blood brain barrier is layer of cells and blood vessels that protects the brain by allowing only very small particles in and out of the brain as needed and to keep out anything that might damage the brain. The blood brain barrier can become leaky (ie have holes in it allowing larger unwanted particles through to the brain) from the following:
- Chronic stress
- Elevated glucose and diabetes
- Chronic environmental toxic exposure
- Elevated homocysteine from B vitamin deficiency or MTHFR gene mutation
- Poor diet and antioxidant status
- Systemic inflammation
How to reduce inflammation
Fix our diets!
- We first need to remove inflammatory foods from the diet which include sugar, alcohol, wheat, gluten, dairy, processed foods, vegetable oils (canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn oils and margarine) and excessive red meat intake.
- Caffeine is inflammatory so limit intake to 1 coffee or tea per day.
- Alcohol is inflammatory so limit intake to 1 standard drink 4 times a week, with 3 alcohol free nights a week.
- Limit red meat intake to 2 x palm sized serves of organic grass red meat per week.
- Increase intake of anti-inflammatory foods (vegetables, oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, flaxseed oil, olive oil, walnuts, turmeric, ginger, thyme, sage, rosemary).
- Aim for 3 serves of fish per week.
- Ensure you are eating 5 serves of vegetables per day – make sure this includes plenty of green leafy vegetables (spinach, silverbeet, collard greens, chard, bok choy, kale).
- If you are cutting out grains, you will need to ensure you eat lots of good fats for satiety (oily fish, avocado, nuts & seeds, tahini, pesto, nut butters, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, olive oil, olives).
- If you are having dairy choose A2 milk.
- Increase intake of foods high in antioxidants (blueberries, green tea, turmeric, chia seeds, broccoli, kale, tomatoes, wild salmon, walnuts, lentils and beans).
- Increase intake of anti-inflammatory teas including ginger, peppermint, lemongrass, dandelion, thyme, rosemary, chamomile, fenugreek, turmeric.
- Cook with butter, ghee, coconut oil or olive oil. Avoid vegetable oils (canola, safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn oils and margarine).
- WATER!! Aim for 2L of filtered water per day.
Fix our environment
- Make sure your diet is as organic as possible. Our food crops are heavily sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, which are foreign substances that lead to inflammation in the body. If you can’t buy organic vegetables, make sure you wash them thoroughly in filtered water with vinegar.
- Choose organic grass fed animal products. Consuming animals fed with grains and given steroid hormones and antibiotics will cause inflammation in our body.
- Avoid buying canned foods, drinking from plastic water bottles and using plastic cling wrap. These contain a chemical called bisphenol-A (BPA) which is so toxic it actually disrupts your DNA replication.
- Use natural chemical free cleaning products.
- Choose natural organic face products, cosmetics, body lotions and hair products.
- Mediation has been proven to lower your cortisol production by taking you out of the “fight or flight” mode into “rest and digest” where cortisol production is lower. I really recommend taking a class or using an App to get started.
- Deep breathing – like meditation, deep breathing will take you out of your ‘fight or flight’ mode.
- Yoga combines physical poses with controlled breathing and meditation which is the perfect combination for lowering cortisol.
- Exercise reduces stress, lowering cortisol, lowering inflammation!
- Sleep – not getting enough sleep is a huge stressor on the body. Aim for at least 8 hours per night.
- Avoid drinking too much caffeine. Caffeine stimulates the production of cortisol which over the long term can cause chronic inflammation in the body.
- Eat regular meals – skipping meals plays havoc with your blood glucose control which actually stressors your body into releasing cortisol to pull glucose stores from your muscle and liver to use for energy. So again cortisol goes up and inflammation goes up!
Consider Anti-inflammatory supplements
Here are some of my favourite supplements for reducing inflammation the body.
Magnesium – lowers cortisol, supports sleep, relaxes the nervous system.
Fish oil – reduces inflammatory molecules, supports stress by improving brain and neurological function, protects the cell membranes from oxidative stress which causes inflammation.
Turmeric – reduces inflammatory molecules. Turmeric actually gets inside the nucleus of the cell to reduce inflammation, which is how steroid anti-inflammatory drugs work, so its really powerful.
Withania – a beautiful herb that is calming and also lowers cortisol. It’s particularly useful in times of stress.
Glutathione – our major antioxidant, which helps lower inflammation in the body.
Zinc – helps support the production of glutathione.
Quercetin – reduces inflammatory molecules and allergy responses which cause inflammation.
Green tea – a fantastic antioxidant which helps lower inflammation in the body.
Selenium – reduces inflammatory molecules, supports our body’s natural antioxidants, protects against toxicity of some heavy metals including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead.
George M. Slavich and Michael R. From Stress to Inflammation and Major Depressive Disorder: A Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression, Psychological Bulletin, 2014.
Datis Kharrazina, Why Isn’t My Brain Working, Elephant Press. 2013.
Poma A, Fontecchio G, Carlucci G, Chichiriccò G. Anti-inflammatory properties of drugs from saffron crocus. Antiinflamm Antiallergy Agents Med Chem. 2012.
Noorbala AA, Akhondzadeh S, Tahmacebi-Pour N, Jamshidi AH. Hydro-alcoholic extract of Crocus sativus L. versus fluoxetine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized pilot trial. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 2005.
Shahmansouri N, et al. A randomized, double-blind, clinical trial comparing the efficacy and safety of Crocus sativus L. with fluoxetine for improving mild to moderate depression in post percutaneous coronary intervention patients. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2014.