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The Lost Link Between Inflammation & Depression

Inflammation really might be the root of all evil; when it shows up in our bodies it literally wreaks havoc, from aching joints to gut disruptions... but what about when we get inflammation that targets the brain...?

What is Depression?

Depression is a complex condition which affects millions of people worldwide. The COVID pandemic shone a bright light on just how many people suffer with some degree of depression. Current statistics, (*1) indicate one in five Americans will experience major depressive disorder (MDD) in their lifetime, and many will not find relief from options that most doctors have. New Jersey has the best statistics at 16.37% and Utah comes in worst with 26.86%.

There are plenty of potential causes of MDD, but recent research (*2) suggests that inflammation in the body may be a contributing factor to the development and severity of depression. In this study the investigators found that inflammation was associated with core depressive symptoms of low mood and lack of pleasure in life along with symptoms of listlessness, fatigue, altered sleep and appetite changes.

How Depression Affects Our Health

While depression itself is debilitating, it is also a risk factor for other health issues, raising the possibility of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and other disorders. Heartbreakingly, depression is also the primary cause of suicide, a leading cause of death in the United States.

There are so many contributing factors to depression that it is difficult to find an effective treatment for many people. Antidepressants are a standard treatment for most depressive disorders, but these were designed to be used only in the short term while other treatments were implemented. Because there is new research that indicates systemic inflammation can cause or exacerbate depression in certain patients, it’s worth understanding why. If we can reduce inflammation, we can reduce the incidence of depression – healthy mind and healthy body - a twofer.

The Crisis of Chronic Inflammation

When the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, it leads to chronic inflammation, which can be detrimental to overall health. Chronic inflammation is becoming increasingly common due to various factors, such as a pro-inflammatory diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods. Lifestyle factors such as exposure to environmental toxins, sleep deprivation, chronic stress, low vitamin D, obesity, prediabetes, lack of movement, and smoking also contribute to inflammatory conditions.

Chronic inflammation has its own set of symptoms which might not seem connected unless you know that they can fit together: abdominal pain, chest pain, fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, fever, high blood pressure, memory changes, changes in blood sugar levels, insulin resistance.

The Science of Inflammation

Inflammation is the first domino in the sequence - once the body starts to experience chronic inflammation, it’s a cascade of biochemical dominos after that. In a healthy brain there is a strong membrane – the blood brain barrier - which keeps toxins out. However, long term elevated inflammation can lead to a breakdown in the barrier between the body and the brain, causing inflammation action inside the brain (neuroinflammation). Inflammation in the brain alters essential brain circuits, which can alter the neurons and cells responsible for reward behavior and identity, and that can trigger depression in people at risk. Additionally, inflammation is associated with the activation of parts of the brain that feel social rejection, fear, and threats.

What is a Cytokine (and why does it matter)?

Cytokines are a group of chemical messengers that send out the alarm to the immune system to turn up and kill something that is dangerous to the body.

The connection between inflammation and depression goes beyond neural activity and motivation. A review study found that pro-inflammatory cytokines directly affect important mood neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin and can also cause dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, central nervous system function, and structural and functional brain changes.

Inflammation is a complex series of actions and reactions in your body. So, it makes sense that there isn’t one single test that measures it. Different inflammatory biomarkers give slightly different information about what is going on.

Numerous studies (*3) have shown that people with depression often have higher levels of inflammatory markers in their blood, including C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). A study examining twins who share 100 percent of the same genes found that the twin with a higher CRP concentration was more likely to develop depression five years later. Further research proves that people with autoimmune diseases have especially high rates of depression. Autoimmunity is on the rise and so there will be a corresponding increase in depression.

Top Tips On Beating Inflammation

1. Minerals and Vitamins - Certain vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D) and supplements (zinc) may reduce inflammation and enhance repair, as can cold fish oil. Or you could cook with spices with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric, ginger or garlic.

2. Choose foods that are anti-inflammatory: Oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon or sardines; Leafy greens like spinach and kale; Olive oil.

3. Avoid foods that contain trans fats and dangerous additives: fried foods, especially fast food; cured meats with nitrates, such as hot dogs and, so sorry, bacon; refined carbohydrates such as sugar, baked products with white flour.

4. Move your body and get your heart rate up for 30 minutes 5 times a week. Sweating gets rid of toxins from your body and helps your muscles stay strong so they can pump blood around which stops everything from getting sluggish and stagnant.

5. Limit alcohol – it is a toxicant that your body must work hard to detox, and it has to work harder as we get older.

6. Drink plenty of water (or herbal tea) to help flush toxins from your body.

7. Avoid skin care and cleaning products that contain harmful toxicants like parabens.

8. Don’t live near a nuclear reactor or a superfund site.

9. Find a way to stop smoking – think about using counseling, nicotine patches, or meditation to help you transition away from cigarettes.

10. Balance your hormones to give your body the best chance of functioning well.

11. Cut out the things that cause stress from your life; stress really can be deadly!

Of course – this list is easier written than done. Anyone suffering with inflammation related depression can have a hard time making the changes needed. Parlor Games Chaos Calmer is a gentle and effective way to boost your mood and help you rebuild the mental strength to make the changes you know you want to make.

If you, or someone you know has been struggling with depression in some form, it could be that inflammation is at the root of some of that mental distress. Now you know more about the relationship between the two, you understand it can help both the body and the mind to unwind the root causes of inflammation.


1. https://www.mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-adult-data#two

2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-021-01188-w

3. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-27571-3