Depression: Is It Just A Brain Disorder?

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Depression: Is It Just A Brain Disorder?

Posted 31 Jan 2018

Mental Health

Dr. Ross Walker

Depression: Is It Just A Brain Disorder?

Over the past decade, depression has received significant coverage in mainstream media with many high-profile organisations, not to mention a number of prominent individuals publicly declaring their own demons in this very common area of mental health.

It is estimated that around 7% of people living in the modern world will experience an episode of major depression on a yearly basis. Depression is defined as five or more of the following symptoms persisting for more than two weeks.

  1. A depressed mood with the loss of pleasure in normally pleasurable activities
  2. Abnormal weight loss or weight gain
  3. Poor sleep and, in particular, early morning wakening, but this may also include too much or too little sleep
  4. Physical agitation or slowness
  5. Fatigue
  6. Feelings of guilt/worthlessness or hopelessness
  7. Lack of focus and at its extreme, thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts

Thankfully, depression is no longer seen as a purely psychological illness or as a sign of weakness or poor character; a condition that the person should toughen up and pull themselves out from.

Probably the most accepted theory is that depression is a disorder of brain chemicals-typically a reduction in the mood chemical, serotonin. This hypothesis is strengthened by the strong observation that serotonin altering pharmaceutical drugs are the mainstay of medical therapy for depression. Although this is probably the case, there are some researchers in the area who dispute this and until we have better methods to assess brain function and neurotransmitter levels within the brain, this explanation will have to suffice.

Interestingly, recent work has suggested that depression could also be a gut disorder. 90% of our serotonin is produced by gut bacteria and it may be that a pathologic gut microbiome may not be producing enough serotonin to maintain a balanced, non-depressed state.

Recent work has also strengthened the notion that depression may have serious systemic health effects through a number of mechanisms.

A recently published study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal followed 3410 adults from Canada over a 60-year period. This examined the death risk associated with depression in both males and females, average age 49 years at study entry. This very long study had three distinct periods each around 20 years and found that in males the increased death risk was present through each period but was very prominent in females for the most recent period from the 1990s and onwards. This rose to a 50% increase of death risk for women during that period.

Equally disturbing was the findings that the younger the diagnosis was made, the much higher the death risk. There are three possible explanations for the higher death risk associated with a diagnosis of depression.

  1. Depression leads to reduced motivation to follow healthy lifestyle principles with a poorer diet, reduced motivation to exercise and a much higher rate of substance abuse
  2. Depression leads to an increase in stress related hormones and a reduction in the variety of “happy chemicals”- both conditions being associated with chronic illnesses
  3. Depression is the leading cause of suicide

Although it is important to make the distinction (a distinction that is often blurred) between depression and grief or loss, there is no doubt that depression is not just a serious mental health issue but significantly increases the risk for a variety of (at times) lethal physical diseases.

As with all conditions, the best management is prevention or at least early detection and intervention. But, this is not possible unless you seek help. Remember, symptoms are natures tickets into the medical system and if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, please seek help early. Similarly, if someone you care about shows signs of depression, do what you can to provide them support and get them professional help. It may just save their life.

On you can find a number of experts who provide free advice and counsel to the public, so please also take advantage of this service if you are in need.

In good health


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4 people have commented this blog.

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Emma says:

8 months 5 days ago
Are you based in Dubai Dr. Ross?

Dr_Ross_Walker says:

8 months 4 days ago
Hi Emma, I'm actually based in Sydney, Australia but I have visited Dubai many times and absolutely love it! Ross

SpencerHill1a_436 says:

8 months 1 week ago
Cheers for some good advice Ross. I've actually reached out to a few of the experts on this site, and been very impressed by the level of service both provided at no cost when I needed help and actually didn't have the money nor the energy even if I did have the cash, to start finding out who could help in my locality and country. Keep on shining on us Enritsch. SH

Dr_Ross_Walker says:

8 months 1 week ago
That's really great to hear, Spencer. Enritsch provides such a great environment for support and wellness. Ross

Susan says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
I always enjoy reading your posts and find them full of helpful advice. In the case of this one, we all go through bouts of uncertainty in ourselves which creates anxiety and sometimes depression, and I'm very grateful to have access to professionals like you to know how to stay on the right path to happiness. In gratitude, Susan.

Dr_Ross_Walker says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
Thank you for your extremely kind words, Susan. I am very grateful to be able to help people like yourself. Ross

Margot says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
Please tell me how a counselor can help heal someone with depression knowing that when they are better, they no longer have that customer. Its not very good for their business to make people better is it?

Dr_Ross_Walker says:

8 months 2 weeks ago
Hi Margot, I tend to disagree. As with any health professional, counsellors treat patients, not customers, and their main concern is with their patient's health and well being. As I would treat my patients with heart disease in the hope they do not need to see me regularly, so would a counsellor. Kind regards Ross

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