Depression and anxiety: caused by inflammation?

I wrote yesterday about following your emotional guidance system to navigate life. In a nutshell, I talked about why we should take our emotions seriously – how they always point us back to the conclusions we’ve drawn about our world. It’s those conclusions that either empower us or keep us stuck. Our emotions are simply responding to that input in a predictable and rational fashion.

Except when they’re not.

There is another circumstance where your emotional guidance system might not be an accurate reflection of the conclusions you’ve drawn.

You might feel stressed, anxious or depressed because your body’s immune system is activated and you’re dealing with chronic inflammation.

Say what? You’ve been doing all this hard work to face your fears, conquer your inner demons, and it turns out that some of your hardship may also be due to your physical health. In this case, our emotions are still guiding us; they’re telling us there’s something going on under the hood that we need to take a closer look at.

How does inflammation cause depression or anxiety?

Current attitudes within the medical profession reflect the belief that depression is caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance. It turns out that picture, as well as whether antidepressant medication actually works, is more than a little uncertain.[1][2] [3][4][5][6]

An interesting theory that’s gaining more traction is that a chronically activated immune system may actually be the culprit. This may be the case not only in major depressive disorder, but also generalized anxiety disorder.[7][8]

Here’s how researchers think it might work: when your immune system is activated, your body releases many messenger cells called cytokines. Cytokines recruit other cells in the immune system (like white blood cells) to come fight an infection. Some types of cytokines also activate inflammatory cells in the body, which in turn release more cytokines, potentially leading to chronic inflammation.

Basically, whenever we have immune system activation, or inflammation, we can be sure that we have many cytokines hard at work in the body.

Importantly, cytokines have a very profound influence on our mood. This has been demonstrated in research since the 1980’s. They can cause us to feel fatigued, irritable, feverish, or lose our appetite. We may have a headache, muscle aches or other flu-like symptoms. And finally, if the inflammation (and cytokines) persist long enough, we can develop severe depression-like symptoms.[9]

We can all recall how we feel when we’re fighting a flu, recovering from surgery, or have a hangover. We become more withdrawn, lethargic, achy, and have trouble concentrating. We can feel anxious, uninterested in our regular activities, and depressed if it goes on for long enough.

The technical term for this is “sickness behaviour”-  and it’s caused by our cytokines’ ability to cause brain inflammation.

Your depression and anxiety may actually be a form of sickness behaviour.

We feel and act like this because it helped our species survive. For example, if one of us in our tribe is fighting a parasite, we are less likely to infect our tribe mates if we isolate ourselves. So our feeling antisocial, anxious or depressed helps to keep our loved ones safe.

Sickness behaviour also forces us to prioritize the body’s healing, whether we want to or not. When we simply feel too awful to move, we spare more of our energy and the body’s resources to fight off the illness. (Isn’t it amazing how often we force ourselves to keep going when our body is trying to care for itself?)[10]

So why would so many people be suffering from an activated immune system that causes chronic inflammation?

The answer comes back to our modern lifestyles and diet. In our industrialized society, both have changed considerably over the past 100 years. And science is linking our high-sugar, nutrient-poor diets,[11] use of novel chemicals[12] [13], and sedentary lifestyles[14] to chronic inflammation.

And now to depression and anxiety.

When the body is constantly stressed from our diet and lifestyle, an overactive immune system is likely to be affecting our mood.

I know from experience that what I eat has a profound influence on how I feel emotionally. In fact, I’ve regularly used my anxiety levels, and how much “happy juice” I feel like I’ve got to tell me whether what I’ve been eating is good for me. No amount of positive thinking is going to have me feeling my best on those days following a visit to the bakery (moderation? never!).

We can see why tackling depression can be so tricky. Sometimes we just feel “blah” for no apparent reason. We can’t get the motivation to do the things we know are going to make us feel so much better and it makes it even more depressing.

But we may be fighting against the momentum of our body’s sickness behaviour, which is trying to do what it thinks is in our best interest by keeping us cooped up at home with Netflix on.

I’ve seen this with my clients, and experienced it myself. Healing the mind involves nourishing the body. So if you’ve been working hard on tackling your limiting beliefs, check in on your diet and lifestyle to make sure you’re not sabotaging your hard work!

It is possible to feel so much better! Remember that feeling blah is never who you are!

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