The Chemical Basis of Depression
“A brief discussion of why we become depressed, from a brain chemistry standpoint.”
How Brain Chemistry Affects Mood
Make no mistake, whether you use medications, therapy or exercise to treat your depression (and anxiety?), what you’re doing is working to change your brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Norepinephrine and Dopamine act to transmit nerve signals. Given that the brain is simply a bundle of neurons (nerves) operating on the transmission of electro-chemical impulses, having the right amount of neurotransmitters present is crucial to ensure our thinking is stable.
Nerves have a finite length, a beginning and an end. The beginning is called the “Dendrite,” and the ending is called the “Axon Terminal.” The Dendrite receives the electro-chemical impulse from the Axon Terminal of the nerve before it.
Between the Dendrite and the Axon Terminal is a small space where the neurotransmitter exists. You can imagine that, should there not be enough neurotransmitter in that gap, then our thoughts (which are dictated by the electro-chemical impulses) will be affected. Slower, or irregular, thinking can result, if this is the case.
Who Am I?
My name is Mike MacKinnon, and I’m a personal trainer in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. I serve the Greater Toronto area and beyond, offering 1-on-1 personal training, as well as online training programs. I am also a life coach and weight loss coach, offering both face-to-face coaching, as well as distance coaching via phone or Skype.
How Medications Work to Improve Mood
The two main medication “types” used to manage depression are “SSRIs” and “SNRIs”: “Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors,” and “Selective Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors.” The word “Selective” indicates that the medication works primarily on the neurotransmitter indicated. For example, a SSRI will block the reuptake of Serotonin primarily, and not Norepinephrine or Dopamine. Similarly, a SNRI will block the reuptake of Norepinephrine, and not Serotonin or Dopamine.
Why block the “Reuptake” of these neurotransmitters? Remember, in order to have “normal” thought patterns, the right amount of a given neurotransmitter needs to be present in the gap between one nerve’s Axon Terminal, and another’s Dendrite. In cases where too much of a given neurotransmitter gets reabsorbed in to the nerve, a reuptake inhibitor can block that from happening. This results in the correct amount of neurotransmitter being present, and, theoretically, more stable thinking patterns.
How Exercise Works to Improve Mood
Serotonin is thought to be positively affected by cardiovascular exercise. More cardio = more serotonin, according to my research. I can attest to the fact that, when I do cardio, I do feel more calm, serene and peaceful. Adequate Serotonin levels are believed to create this effect. Could it just be a placebo effect? Possibly. Yet even if so, it works, and my heart and lungs are healthier for it .
Dopamine is thought to be positively affected by resistance training. More resistance training = more Dopamine, and Dopamine is important. It’s the neurotransmitter that supplies us with motivation, with “oomph,” with the desire to get at the day and get things done.
So, you can imagine that deficiencies in either neurotransmitter can have significant consequences on our mental health.
How Food Works to Augment Mood
L-Tryptophan is a Serotonin precursor. Foods high in L-Tryptophan can help to augment feelings of well-being (think Turkey, as an example). Less healthy options, processed foods full of carbohydrate, for example, can produce a similar effect, however at the cost of an increasing waistline if not carefully managed.
Of course, an increasing waistline can often negatively impact mental healthy (feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, etc.).
It’s better to focus on healthy foods, then, if you’re choosing food as a treatment for depression or anxiety.
The Chicken-or-Egg Question
So, does negative thinking cause depression, or does depression cause negative thinking? Depression is about an altered brain chemistry. The Allopathic medical model seems to suggest more that it’s a brain chemistry imbalance that causes depression.
The Naturopathic medical model would mostly agree, suggesting supplements instead of medication to manage mood.
A more wholistic approach would incorporate all modalities, including therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Reality Therapy. (Don’t worry, I’ll expand on these in the weeks to come).
William Glasser, the creator of Choice Theory and Reality Therapy, would argue that our negative thinking is what changes our brain chemistry, rather than altered brain chemistry causing negative thinking.
Who’s right? Maybe everyone is. It’s best to keep an open mind and explore all avenues.
What Should I Do About My Depression?
Try everything you can. Medical solutions. Naturopathy. Psychotherapy. Delve in to each to see what works for you. I have seen different combinations of these three work for different people.
If you’d like help getting started on your journey to improved mental health, I’d be happy to talk to you. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me at 647-677-6025, or at firstname.lastname@example.org, if you think you might benefit from some guidance.
Remember, I’ve been there and have had my share of struggles with depression and anxiety. I’d love to be of assistance.