I once listened and watched a lecture by Robert Sapolsky, a biology professor from Stanford University on depression. In the video Professor Sapolsky describes depression as the most damaging disease you can experience. He’s right, however his lecture was focused primarily on the biology of how depression is diagnosed or recognized in the human brain and not on the cause. I was also in agreement with his response to a research that identified a gene 5-HTT that researchers found in a longitudinal study with depressed subjects. More specifically, the study found that depressed people were more likely to have the 5-HTT gene with short alleles versus non depressed persons who are more likely to have 5-HTT with long alleles. His response was that the 5-HTT with short alleles does not cause depression but increases vulnerability to depression after frequent exposure to stress.
This is important to note and supports my statements to my clients that just because their mother, father, aunts and grandparents have been diagnosed with depression doesn’t mean that they too have to be diagnosed and stuck with depression. Further, I suspect that those with the 5-HTT gene with long alleles when exposed to repeated and detrimental stress are more likely to develop other mental health issues. Different people, when exposed to the same detrimental stress factors develop different types of mental health issues.
In my first post for This Therapist’s Blog, I identified three types of depression, depression caused by chronic anxiety, clinical depression and rage (poor anger management). I also identified the types of beliefs that lead to each type of depression. If you missed the post, you are welcome to read it before continuing with this post. My point is this, when it comes to our overall mental health, our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors play a vital role in influencing our mental health for better or for worse.
Understanding Depression on a Biological Level
On a biological level, depression can be identified when a nerve cell releases serotonin (a neurotransmitter that influences moods) into the synapse (a gap between two nerve cells), and the receiving nerve cell refuses to take in the serotonin. The original nerve cell then reabsorbs some of the serotonin it released while the rest get destroyed by enzymes. Ideally what is supposed to happen is that the original nerve cell releases the serotonin, the receiving nerve cell absorbs the serotonin it needs, the original nerve cell then absorbs some of the serotonin not used by the receiving cell and enzymes destroy the rest.
Here is a visual representation of what I am writing about.
Now look at the picture above and imagine the serotonin receptor sites rejecting the serotonin, that on a biological level, is what depression is. However low to no absorption of serotonin by any receiving nerve cell is not the cause of depression it’s the symptom.
Symptoms are like the check engine lights staying on after the engine has been started. Your car is informing you something is wrong with the engine, taking out the fuse connected to the check engine light will not solve the problem. In our bodies, symptoms are our bodies’ way of informing us that something is wrong.
Healing From Depression.
Overall, the best attitude to take towards healing from depression, is embracing an attitude of courage. Life is short, and living in despair when you don’t have to, is a waste of precious time. An attitude of courage involves being able to accept reality for what it is. Unfortunately, too many people have become conditioned to living in denial, that they have come to believe their lies as truths. However, the mind has a mind of it’s own, and just as it can regulate our body temperature based on the temperature of our immediate surroundings, the mind also has the ability to regulate it’s internal feelings based on the truths in your lives.
Here are four primary steps to take in order to being healing from depression.
I. Document to Observe the Truth.
The first step to embracing the truth is to keep a journal. Keeping a journal is the most underrated and effective therapeutic exercise I have recommended in my twelve years of experience. Even when written in short hand, the truth of your life is difficult to escape. I once worked with a client, who initially insisted that he only drank alcohol on the weekends. In reading his entries with him, he had drinking every day after work, to include weekend mornings and evenings. As I read his entries aloud, he interrupted me as said, “I think I have a problem”.
It is important to remember that life is about solving problems, just because you don’t have a solution to what you are experiencing, doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t.
II. Love thy Self
The second step is to adopt an attitude of self love. This means that you have to come to see yourself as a valued and worthwhile human being, simply because you exist. That’s right, there is no need for you to work on arriving, you already arrived the day your were born. This attitude, once adopted, drastically changes how anyone perceives life. People who genuinely believe in this attitude see themselves as empowered and blessed and seek to give back for the gift of life they have been given. They do this by making a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives so that they too can contribute to the collective human experience.
III. Nutrition is True Medicine
The third step is to change your diet. Consider this, humans being evolved on diets that had equal amounts of the essential oils omega 6 and omega 3. Unfortunately, most western diets today have more omega 6 than omega 3 diets. The omega 6 and omega 3 are fatty acids that the human body is unable to produce on its own, but needs. Studies conducted to date seem to suggest that omega 6 is crucial to the immune response system to diseases and infections, a good example would be blood clotting. Omega 3 however seems to decrease these functions. This seems to make sense, meaning that with the proper balance of omega 6 and omega 3, the immune system will not turn on the body in the absence of diseases and infections. Think inflammation of the brain, joints and clogging of the arteries.
Consumption of fried foods, particularly those from fast food places leads to excessive amounts of omega 6 in the system. It is also important to note that omega 6 and omega 3 also serve as fat molecules on the membranes of cells. Fat molecules make up the membrane of nerve cells and serve as receptors for serotonin and other neurotransmitters in receiving nerve cells. Studies have shown that serotonin neurotransmitters have a much difficult time binding to omega 6 receptors that to omega 3 receptors, due to the different structures of the omegas. Omegas 6 are longer and harder, while omega 3 are softer and smaller.
While I believe a low serotonin transmission to merely be a symptom of depression, I suspect that severe depression results when there are other factors that impede the proper transmission of serotonin in the synapses. Think of it this way, if you are experiencing a recognized problem, it is quite alright for you to be depressed about the situation while still experiencing realistic feelings of hope and gratitude for other things going your way in your life. However, if you are experiencing problems in your life, and eating the wrong type of diet, your nutrition could literally cause you to consistently have a bleak outlook on life.
Salmon, flax seeds, walnuts, sardines, grass fed beef, unprocessed soy beans, scallops, shrimp and tofu are some examples of food sources rich in omega 3. For more information on omega 3 fatty acids, you can visit world healthiest foods for more information.
You can also take omega 3 supplements, for depression, the recommended dosage varies from 4, 000 milligrams to 10,000 milligrams per day. You can check out dosage recommendations for fish oil by the good doctors at Web MD.
IV. Exercise is Good for the Brain.
There are plenty of research studies that have shown a positive correlation between exercise and improved brain function, especially when it comes to improved memory and depression. While various studies have stated that exercise improves depressive symptoms, I believe that the most important aspect of exercising is improved sleep. Improved sleep, meaning reestablishment of a healthy sleep cycle free from not getting enough sleep or just too much sleep.
Here’s why- in this ground breaking study, researchers strongly suggested that REM (dreaming) sleep improves cognition You are welcome to read up on the study here. People who regularly exercise tend to do so early in the morning, which leaves them sleepy during the evening time. With improved sleep, comes more dreaming, with more dreaming comes a well rested and more flexible brain, eager to creatively seek new solutions for current and old problems in the persons’s life.
Yes, this is my theory on how exercise helps with depression. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness usually comes from an exhausted and fatigued cognition.
I am not a big believer in hard core physical training, unless you are a professional athlete or in the military. Moderate exercising will do just find. If you like running, running at a moderate pace for thirty minutes every other day is optimal. If you don’t like running, take up biking, if you don’t like biking, fast paced walking for thirty to forty minutes every other day would do you just fine.
If the idea of going outside to workout is not something that gets you excited there are a variety of options available for you to use, from treadmills, to stationary bikes and elliptical machines.
In summary the best approach to take for healing from depression is a combination of identifying and changing beliefs that are detrimental to you, developing a genuine sense of unconditional self acceptance, changing your diet for the better and developing a reasonable exercise plan.
Ultimately, this post does not contain exhaustive information about healing from depression, but is arms a person who suffers from depression with enough information to begin practicing healthier habits for the better, preferably under the guidance of a professional.
So what are your thoughts and feelings about this post? All feedback are welcome.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling private practice.