Could depression just be an allergic reaction?

Could depression actually be nothing more than an allergic reaction?

Our understanding and awareness of depression has, thankfully, evolved some way beyond the old-fashioned “pull-yourself-together” response. Most now know that it’s a multifaceted, shape-shifting, and frequently debilitating condition that transcends race, sex, and creed. But we still don’t know exactly why some become depressed and some don’t.

We know that people may be genetically predisposed to depression and anxiety disorders. We also know that specific life events may trigger depressive episodes in those who have previously been the picture of mental health. But so far we’ve been unable to identify one single, definitive catalyst. However, new research suggests that, for some people, depression may be caused by something as simple as an allergic reaction. A reaction to inflammation—a product of the body, not the mind.

George Slavich, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of an increasing number of scientists who believe we need to be looking at our physiology to better understand depression—that, perhaps, it’s not all in the head. “I don’t even talk about it as a psychiatric condition anymore,” he told the Guardian. “It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.”

The thesis is simple: Everyone feels like shit when they’re sick. That ennui we feel when we’re unwell—listlessness, lack of enthusiasm, troubled sleep, tearfulness, and a general feeling of wading through tar—is apparently known among psychologists as “sickness behavior.” Our bodies are pretty intelligent, see—they behave this way so that we stop, lie still, and let our system fight whatever infection of virus has us croaking for Gatorade on the couch.

These kinds of emotional responses are also typical of depression, though. So scientists are asking: If sick people feel and act a lot like depressed people, might there be a link?

I have always treated my depression as physical not emotional. Why?

Well, because if it was emotional then I could talk myself out of it right? Well I couldn’t. I always thought it was a case of mind over matter and that at the beginning if I just took care of myself and took the pills then in 6 months I’d be back to normal.

Boy, was I wrong. It was a 7 year battle, and still is an ongoing battle.

But what got me through was firstly stopping the anti-depressants, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and then addressing my physical health. The single biggest assistance for my mental health was going for walks…vigorous walks which enabled the resetting of my breathing…getting control over your breathing is the single biggest thing that can help you.

Is depression physical rather than emotional? Well it appears so.

Yes, basically. It’s all about inflammation—that clever red siren we have in our immune system that lets the body know something is wrong and it needs to be fixed. Proteins called cytokines cause inflammation and flick the brain’s “sickness” switch—i.e., make us sad and still. Cytokines skyrocket during depressive episodes and, in those with bipolar disorder, halt in remission. The fact that “normal,” healthy people can become temporarily anxious or depressed after receiving an inflammatory vaccine—like typhoid—lends further credence to the theory. There are even those who think we should re-brand depression altogether as an infectious disease.

This makes absolute sense to me, with my experience of depression. Learning the pathology of my depression enabled me to defeat it and keep it at bay without the cocktail of drugs presecribed and forced upon me by doctors and insurance companies.

On the one hand, the theory linking physical illness and depression is encouraging. Carmine Pariante, a Kings College psychiatrist who is quoted in the Guardian report, says that we’re between five and ten years away from a blood test that can measure levels of inflammation in depressed people. If both Pariante’s estimate and the inflammation-depression theory are correct, we could potentially be just five years from an adequate “cure” for depression.

But if the theory gains more weight, it’s possible that it could have negative consequences. As Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at University of Melbourne points out, it might be wrong to believe that a better understanding of mental illness will automatically lead to “social progress.” Believing that a mentally ill person has a deep-rooted, physical defect “may lead us to see them as unpredictable, incurable, and categorically different from the rest of us.” So, if we shift the blame from the mind to the body, will the stigma surrounding the mentally ill decrease? Maybe it will. Hopefully it will. But even though there’s greater awareness now that depression is a result of a “chemical imbalance” in the brain—i.e., a physical problem—studies have suggested there’s been no significant reduction in the stigma that surrounds the mentally ill.

Stigma is the biggest hinderance. Thoughts flood in that your aren’t tough, that you aren’t a real bloke…and then your political detractors use your honesty about the illness you are suffering against you. One example was the multiple complaints to police over me having a firearms licence, which necessitated me having to forensically prove at great expense that I was a fit and proper person. That came about from an attack by several left-wingers in order to take away one of the few things in the dark days that kept me sane. I’ve never shared that before, but it shows just why I loathe the left-wing so much.

While there are certainly many other physiological causes of inflammation that support the theory—obesity (excess body fat, particularly around the belly, harbors huge amounts of cytokines) being one—it would be naive to suggest that all depression is a side effect of physical illness. For so many of us, day-to-day life is practically booby-trapped with despair; you could argue that we’re chronically inflamed all the time. However, at least this new research from people like Slavich is opening up the discussion and revealing the complexities of mental illness. And if the realization that basically anyone can be mentally ill doesn’t make people more sympathetic to mental illness, is there anything that will?

Very interesting stuff…I will certainly follow these developments.



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.