There is an inexact illness plaguing modern Western society. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada twenty percent of Canadians will suffer some form of it in their lifetimes, and the specific form of it that I am referring to affects eight percent of all Canadian adults.
So what is it? Mental illness, specifically: depression. It carries with it a social stigma and a lot of misunderstanding.
Depression is what is generally referred to as a “mood disorder” or sometimes an “affective disorder”. The Wikipedia combines both terms, calling it a “mood (affective) disorder“. It’s symptoms can vary depending on the person and their specific case. Although I am a long time sufferer (and believe me – you do suffer) of this illness, I have a hard time finding a way to express the horror it causes in a way that could be totally understood by a “healthy” person.
The insidiousness of this illness is that it manages to work it’s way into every single aspect of your life. It directly meddles with how you interact socially, and it’s there when you’re alone. You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t be happy or content – after a while, you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
My pet theory is that depression, like cancer, is becoming more prevalent in our society because the mental traumas and dietary changes we’ve brought upon ourselves are unnatural for the human condition.
Dr. Peter D. Kramer, in his book “Listening to Prozac”, describes one way that depression appears to develop. It seems that traumatic events can cause the brain to re-wire itself. The chemicals that control things like mood are also related to the fight-or-flight mechanism of the body. Each time we experience a trauma, the chemical change that allows us to cope with the event alters some of our organs. It’s like a physiological memory because our bodies are re-mapped slightly.
These alterations can be bigger than you’d think, and the source of the trauma more basic. Studies done with rats and rhesus monkeys showed that depression can be kindled. In layman’s terms, this means that they’ve shown that depression gets worse with each subsequent trauma and eventually becomes triggered without external cause. The traumatic stressor can be physical, mental, emotional, social – anything really. Each time the body experiences a stressful event, the chemical receptors in the brain are altered.
How does this cause depression? The going theory is that serotonin, a chemical in the brain used to move messages and affect mood, is not being processed correctly – there’s not enough of it to go around. Repeated stressors eventually cause this to become a significant disruption in the natural flow of things and depression results.
The current crop of anti-depressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Effexor are what are referred to as SSRIs, or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. They prevent all of the chemical serotonin from being re-absorbed right away by the brain, causing it to pool. This allows more of it to be available and it tends to reverse some of the effects of depression. Other findings have also shown that the adrenal gland is generally enlarged in patients suffering from depression. Whether that is caused by depression illness, or the repeated traumas I am not sure.
Illness, the death of a family member, an accident or injury could be a trigger. Poor diet and daily stresses could cause it too, depending on the severity of how they affect our nervous system. Anything which engages the fight-or-flight instinct and related biological responses could, in theory, eventually cause depression in some people. This brings us back to my pet theory.
Studies are starting to show that the changes we have made in our diet as a society may be the cause of most modern illnesses such as cancer, tooth decay and heart disease. A quick search on Google for these things yields a host of articles. So could the stresses placed on our bodies by these Western processed foods be also causing depression? Studies have already been done that show diet plays a factor in easing the suffering of the mentally ill.
I’m not aware of any studies that show whether diet can actually cause depression, but I think that it just might. Just some food for thought, if you will.