Depression is an Inflammation Problem

I just can’t get away from my low moods sometimes. I’m usually pretty happy, and in my mind I’m easygoing. At least, I think I used to be. Four kids, three jobs, thirty-eight years of life and loss and reality can really send one’s brain for a loop. Anyone relate?

Yet I have Jesus. My relationship with the Lord is very important to me, and I am not sure how anyone survives in this life without a dependence on Someone who is not…oneself.  The security and protection of my heavenly Father and the grace and peace found in my Savior have gotten me through marital issues, shocking, devastating deaths, and the trials and tribulations that come from being a simply human in the Great World Machine.

That might be a little heavy for a hormone blog, but week after week of walking women through their hormone issues inevitably leads to week after week of walking women through their heart issues. And sometimes, I succumb to the heaviness and weariness of bearing one another’s burdens. I love it, and am so grateful for my job and ministry. But I have no illusions that anyone’s life is easy or rosy all of the time, and I certainly don’t expect this in my own life (anymore, ha!).  It is normal to have ups and downs in our moods, despite what popular culture might tell us. We don’t have to medicate ourselves out of our feelings. We simply have to ask why those feelings are there. Are we doing too much? Are we spreading ourselves too thin? Not sleeping enough? Not cuddling children or spouses or animals enough? Not getting enough outside time, walking, connection, or protein? All of these are possible, and probable in our busy lives. Sheer overwhelm can lead to the low moods characterized as depression.

But there are other factors at play as well. One of these factors is inflammation.

This week I was writing part of my Master’s thesis. My subject matter involves the use of progesterone therapy on the inflammatory state of perimenopause, so I’ve been scouring the research. And the research is clear: from a scientific, biological standpoint, depression absolutely stems from inflammatory processes in the body.

Inflammation, Depression, and Hormones

Here are a few facts we know about depression

  • depression is common in acute illness (like a flu or virus)

  • acute illness is characterized by elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines, namely IL-6, CRP, and TNF-a (these are all common blood markers of inflammation)

  • these aforementioned inflammatory cytokines, when triggered via a shot of toxins into a non-depressed person, actually cause depression

  • traditional antidepressants (SSRIs) lower inflammatory cytokines in the body

  • drug-resistant depression is associated with persistent levels of inflammation in the body


Those things are kind of a big deal.

If you have persistent bouts of depression, odds are pretty great that your body has systemic inflammation.

Where does it come from? How does it start?

  1. Stress (source)

Psychosocial stressors, including acute psychological trauma or more sub-chronic stressors, and early exposure to childhood trauma robustly increase the risk of developing clinical depression and mood symptoms, while impacting neuro-immune circuits.


The findings that psychosocial stressors modulate the production of pro-inflammatory versus anti-inflammatory or negative immunoregulatory cytokines has important implications for stress-related disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Thus, psychosocial stressors, such as negative life events, and chronic psychosocial stress often precede the onset of clinical depression..Evidence from animal models has long suggested that early exposure to trauma in childhood may increase the subsequent risk of poor functioning of the immune, endocrine and nervous systems.

So stress, both from childhood and current persistent, even mildly persistent, stress can cause inflammation to go up and the risk of depression to increase.

Takeaway: get outside, go to bed by 10 and sleep 7-8 hours, find a leisure activity you enjoy, get a community you love, and let it go.

2. Diet (source)

Diets high in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats cause inflammation. Fiber from fruits and vegetables have inflammation-lowering properties.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important components of many healthy foods, such as seafood, nuts, legumes and leafy green vegetables, act to reduce inflammation, while a diet disproportionately high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are commonly used in the production of processed foods, increases the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. (source).

eight servings of produce a day

Eight servings of fruits and vegetables per day are associated with significantly less inflammatory cytokinetic activity than two servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

The short-chain fatty acids that are produced by the breakdown of fiber in the diet have significant anti-inflammatory effects in the body and the brain.

Takeaway: aim for eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

3. Inactivity

Actually, exercise increases pro-inflammatory cytokines like IL-6. Exercise increases inflammation?! Well, yes. But only temporarily. While inflammation happens as a result of muscle stress, a whoosh of anti-inflammatory cytokines are released in kind. Think of it as a wave rolling into shore (inflammatory cytokines) and then quickly and fully rolling back into the ocean proper (anti-inflammatory cytokines). The aftereffect is much stronger than the initial effect.

Check it out:

Chronic or regular exercise, therefore, down-regulates systemic inflammation via homeostatic adaptation. (source).

How awesome is that?

Move your butt, be less depressed. 


Takeaway: walk at least one hour a day in aggregate, preferably outside.

4. Leaky Gut

When your gut wall cells are permeable, you might be susceptible to depression. Leaky gut is surely an inflammatory condition. Stress, sugar, gluten, dairy, and alcohol all contribute to leaky gut.

Here’s a thought:bacterial translocation may drive inflammatory and O&NS (oxidative and nitrosative stress) processes in depression, even in the absence of a specific inflammatory lesion. On the other hand, inflammatory and O&NS pathways may cause loosening of the tight junction barrier through NF-κB and pro-inflammatory cytokine-related mechanisms. (source).

This essentially means that leaky gut causes inflammation, and inflammation causes leaky gut. Boo. PS- the literature correlates this leaky gut inflammatory condition with autoimmune conditions, too.

With leaky gut, bacteria tends to seep out of the intestines and into the bloodstream. The toxic byproducts of pathogenic bacteria, lipopolysaccharides, or LPS, are what contribute to inflammation in the body.

Leaky gut > bacteria in the wrong places > inflammation > depression.

Takeaway: eat plenty of protein, good fats, fruits and vegetables. These crowd out your desire for sugar, bread and pastries, ice cream and milky coffee drinks, and Moscow Mules.

5. Poor Sleep

Let’s start with a quote:

Typically, depressive patients exhibit higher rates of sleep disturbances than those in the general population and, conversely, those who report abnormal sleep patterns report higher levels of depression than normal sleepers (source).

This is another chicken/egg quandary. Bad sleep means you might become depressed/ being depressed means you will probably have poor sleep.

Sleep problems mess with your immune system. When the immune system is in disarray, inflammation tends to go up. Ergo, depressive tendencies tend to go up.

In my experience, poor sleep begets poor sleep. Start practicing sleep hygiene. Turn devices off by 9 pm. Take an epsom salt bath. Read a real book in a dimly lit room. Turn down the thermostat. Have fantastic sex and make sure you orgasm. Talk and cuddle and journal your problems/anxieties/issues down on paper before bed. Take melatonin or GABA if need be. Work on progesterone levels. Fall asleep by 10 pm and sleep until 5 or 6 am. You need sleep.

Takeaway: Practice excellent sleep hygiene so you get a great night’s sleep.

photo via Unsplash by Alexander Possingham

This is a great place to start if you suffer from depression, especially treatment-resistant depression. There is no drug that can pull you out of a sedentary, sugar-laden, sleep-deprived, inflamed state. You’ve got to do the heavy lifting. Maybe you won’t end up needing drugs, or maybe they will work more effectively when your body is less inflamed.

Depression truly is an inflammation problem, and you actually hold all of the keys in your hands to reduce inflammation. If you need help figuring out where to start, I can help. Book a free Discovery Call with me so we can talk about inflammation, depression, sleep, and more.












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