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What Causes Depression?

Recognize Your Risk Factors

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Controllable Risk Factors
  • Your diet. Food can affect your mood. A diet too low in iron, healthy carbohydrates, and calories can cause symptoms of depression. Eating plenty of calories, whole grain carbohydrates, Omega-3 fatty acids, and iron-rich foods can improve symptoms. Learn how to eat well when dealing with depression.
  • Your activity level. Inactive people tend to have higher stress levels, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and mood swings. Regular exercise produces “feel good” chemicals in the brain, enhancing the benefits of antidepressant medications, and producing similar results. Learn more about exercising to relieve depression.
  • Your alcohol & drug use. For many, depression and substance abuse are closely connected. Alcohol and illicit drugs can interact with medications, worsen depression and its symptoms, and prevent recovery. If you think you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, seek help.
  • Your sleeping patterns. Changes in your sleeping habits and the quality of your sleep can be closely related to your mood. A lack of sleep can cause many symptoms similar to those of depression. Get tips for better shut-eye.
  • Your medications. Several types of medications can cause depression. If you think your medication may be contributing to your symptoms, talk to your doctor about finding an alternative medication for your condition that doesn't have this negative side effect.
  • Your stress levels. People with uncontrolled, chronic stress are more prone to developing depression. Taking time to relax and relieve stress through exercise, meditation, yoga or other techniques can help.
While lifestyle changes alone cannot treat depression, talk with your health care provider if you think the factors above may be affecting your mood, thoughts and behavior. Every small lifestyle change you can make, in conjunction with the treatment plan laid out by your doctor, can improve your overall health and help enhance the effectiveness of medical interventions.
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Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
Nicole was named "America's Top Personal Trainer to Watch" in 2011. A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, she loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Her DVDs "Total Body Sculpting" and "28 Day Boot Camp" (a best seller) are available online and in stores nationwide. Read Nicole's full bio and blog posts.

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Member Comments

  • ALPHIE67
    I have Clinical Depression which is inherited. I do take medication but there are times when it just isn't enough and food is what I head for. All the sweet desserts, chocolate and also anything crunchy. As much as I know intellectually, emotions take over and I hate when that happens. I do Zumba 1hr 3X a week plus strength training and that really does help emotionally. You can actually feel the endorphins working plus everybody is sweating and panting with you so your not alone. Another big help is as you're exercising with the instructor there is great big mirror in front of you so you can't help but see what you really truly look like. - 12/4/2012 1:46:02 AM
  • Thank you Marty and Zonkeroo - there is a big difference between "being depressed" and "having depression." Contrary to what the quiz says, everyone feels depressed at some point, and it's normal. When students study real hard and get a grade much lower than expected, it can alter the mood for a sustained amount of time, and that is depression, a lowered state of mood/being. When an adult gets a demotion, totals a car, goes through serious illness, or has financial concerns it can be classified as being depressed.

    Having depression is different. Think back to the commercials you see on TV. Does it last more than two weeks? Does your life come to a halt because of this serious altered mood? Do you feel like a completely different version of yourself? These are signs that the lowered mood state is more serious and needs assistance.

    To Jenn, if you're still reading this, there are breaking studies in the past few years that suggest the effects of PTSD can lessen to such a degree that they no longer impact the person's daily life. The difference between the PTSD of Vietnam and that of the Gulf Wars is the kind of care that's available today. Medication to treat the immediate effects makes space for talk-therapy (counseling) to be effective. While you used to need to be on medications permanently, they are finding that it may no longer be the case. However, if you do go on medications (and they do a wonderful job when the right one is found), do not go off them alone - do it with the advice and oversight of a trained medical professional.

    Remember, if you need it, it's okay. No one would tell a diabetic to get it together and just start making insulin. No one would tell a cancer patient to fight it harder so those cells go away. They rely on a medical team to help them manage and work with what's going on. You can manage depression with help and live a very full life.

    - 11/22/2011 9:04:32 AM
  • Depression is a beast and it totally sucks. I've been battling depression since 2003 (actively) and have not really found any relief. I switch from one medication to the next hoping for some relief. Exercise does help *SOME* but not enough that I find myself happy again. Diet does help *some* but not enough that I can kick my meds to the curb. Prior to 2007 it was clinical depression and anxiety. Post 2007, it is clinical depression, anxiety, ADHD and PTSD brought on by the call to duty while battling PPD. I believe my depression is mostly environmental, but could be biological - hard telling since I'm the only one in my family being treated for it.

    I have tried and tried to change my attitude, reduce my stress, eat better, exercise more, etc, etc, etc, but none of those things have provided the relief I seek. The Army doc told me that I'd be on medication 'til the day I die. I refuse to accept that and will continue to seek a coping mechanism that works for me without using drugs. We'll see how it goes... - 10/18/2011 2:49:22 PM
  • I realize that this article is a broad overview of depression which is also a very broad topic. MARTY32M is right that a lot of the items listed are risk factors not actual causes in and of themselves. Many people have these things going on and do not have depression. I also would hope that the article would mention what I call "situational" depression vs clinical or biological based depression. Some situations leave people temporarily depressed due to a variety of reasons perhaps having to do with attitude, coping issues, normal life or other psychological reasons. However there is also long term biologically based depression which has to do with brain chemistry. The person may not have any risk factors going on (loss of job, divorce, death in family ...etc.) and still have biologically based depression due to low serotonin or other brain chemistry reasons. It only adds frustration to the problem to tell people dealing with this type of depression to "toughen up" or just change their attitude. It's important to know that while exercise and other techniques may help there really is no cure. Medication even has it's limits. I don't like it when people say get conciling or medication as if that will completely eliminate the problem. In my opinion like many things in life it is just something we can minimize but never completely get "cured" from. - 6/28/2011 5:43:46 PM
  • Marty is correct.

    WebMD has useful information about the multiple causes as well.
    http://www.webm
    d.com/depress
    ion/guide/cau
    ses-depression

    How Is Biology Related to Depression?

    Researchers have noted differences in the brains of people who are depressed as compared to people who are not. For instance, the hippocampus, a small part of the brain that is vital to the storage of memories, appears to be smaller in people with a history of depression than in those who've never been depressed. A smaller hippocampus has fewer serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a calming brain chemical known as a neurotransmitter that allows communication between nerves in the brain and the body. It's also thought that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine may be involved in depression.

    Scientists do not know why the hippocampus is smaller in those with depression. Some researchers have found that the stress hormone cortisol is produced in excess in depressed people. These investigators believe that cortisol has a toxic or poisonous effect on the hippocampus. Some experts theorize that depressed people are simply born with a smaller hippocampus and are therefore inclined to suffer from depression.

    One thing is certain -- depression is a complex illness with many contributing factors. The latest scans and studies of brain chemistry that show the effects of antidepressants help broaden our understanding of the biochemical processes involved in depression. As scientists gain a better understanding of the cause(s) of depression, health professionals will be able to make better "tailored" diagnoses and, in turn, prescribe more effective treatment plans.

    How Is Genetics Linked to the Risk of Depression?

    We know that depression seems to run in families. This suggests that there's a genetic link to depression. Children, siblings, and parents of people with severe depression are much more likely to suffer from depression than are members of the general population. Multiple genes interacting with one another in special ways probably contribute to the variou... - 4/19/2011 9:44:02 AM
  • MARTY32M
    These are not causes of depression. They are risk factors. Many of them are also risk factors for heart attack, but they are not causes. The cause of most heart attacks is a blood clot that forms when a plaque inside a coronary artery ruptures and blocks the artery, but why the plaque ruptures is not known. The cause of depression is even less well known. Here's a summary from

    http://www.nimh
    .nih.gov/heal
    th/publicatio
    ns/depression
    /complete-index.shtml

    "There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.

    "Research indicates that depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters
    –chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appea
    r to be out of balance. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred." - 3/9/2011 10:59:38 AM
  • 08VERONICA
    I'm thinking about you EVARABAGO - I think you've had more than your share of things the last few years but you've survived and have shown yourself to be stronger than you know. Sometimes its one day at a time, please keep the faith as you are doing it! One day at a time.
    - 4/24/2010 8:32:13 AM
  • NURSECATHY123
    I said a prayer for you, Evarabago and CowboyCook! Hope you are both doing well. I think that we who tend to be depressed have a tougher time dealing with life events, like the death of a loved one. Please post again and let me know how you are doing. - 1/25/2010 8:44:13 AM
  • COWGIRLCOOK
    for some wonderful information about depresssion and other mental illnesses you can go to : BringChange2Mind.
    org. Its a wonderful site that was started by Glenn Close. Her sister is bipolar (like me) and her newphew has schizophrenia. It is for anybody affected by such diseases. It is estimated that 1 in 4 families is impacted by somebody they know or love. It has super information, and perhaps can be helpful in some small way to you. I know its helpful to me to not feel alone in my struggles with bipolar and weight. - 12/31/2009 9:08:56 AM
  • COWGIRLCOOK
    My depression seemed to surface in college. I would find myself removing myself from people and situations more and more frequently. I was not diagnosed with Major depression until my thirties. Even then the meds and therapy did not seem to "cure" the depression. It was not until I was 55 that an astute psychiatrist gave me the lable bipolar. It fits! It fills in the missing pieces, explains some of my strange behaviors and has helped me plot a course of medication and therapy that addresses all the issues. Please, if your depression is not getting better, or seems stuck , seek additional help that perhaps can unlock the puzzle.
    Wishing you all good things......... - 12/31/2009 8:59:06 AM
  • EVARABAGO
    I have suffered with depression over the last 17 years. It started when I was going through menopause. I got treated for that and was getting better and I had major life changes. We bought our first house, which I was over the moon about. Then a year later, my son was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I was devastated. We went to Sloan Kettering, which was from God because they treat that type of cancer there all the time. He had 4 months of chemo and five surgeries. I almost didn't get through the surgeries. I was so painful for me to watch him go through that. He can home and was recovering when my daughter developed a lump on her neck. To make that long story short, we went back to Sloan Kettering, where I had to watch another child go through surgery. They found out it was Hodskins Lympoma. She had 4 months of chemo. She was only 12. I fell into a real clinical depression after all that and was suicidal at one point. I did get help and I am on medication. That was 13 years ago and my children are fine and cancer survivors. But 2 years ago, I lost my husband to heart problems. He died right next to me during the night. At the same time, my mother was sick with cancer and she died 6 months after him. It has taken me 2 years to start to feel better. I belong to a bereavement group and I also go for alcohol counseling every week. I started drinking after my husband and mother died. I was beyond depressed. I am on medication and see a professional every 3 weeks. The counseling center has been wonderful for me. I belong to a group and saw a counselor one-on-one and also a psychiatrist. Today I am depressed. I was sick all week with the flu and bronchitis. I went to the doctor and got an antibiotic for the bronchitis. I think I'm depressed because I have been sick all week and didn't go to work or anywhere except to the doctor. Hopefully, I will get better this week coming up and can start to go to work and be able to do things. I know this message has been very long, but this is the first time I have posted a ... - 10/4/2009 10:00:02 PM
  • SPONIAS
    Depression is provoked also when someone doesn’t develop their personality completely and the missing points work against them, since they live in an atrophied condition. Many times this is the main reason for an unexplainable depression, while someone believes that “everything is fine” and they have no reason to feel so sad. - 7/20/2009 3:43:36 PM
  • I was diagnosed with Chronic Depression when I was 27. My marriage had fallen apart, I had two young sons to raise, and it was the late 1960's. As anyone who lived through the 50's and 60's can tell you, things were MUCH different then. It was not good to be a single mom during those times, believe me!

    Once I found out what was wrong with me, it was like the weight of the universe had been taken off my shoulders. There was actually a name for what I was feeling. I wasn't just an uncaring, unfeeling person after all. I could be FIXED!!

    I have been treated off and on ever since that time. The last time I started taking meds (Effexor), my doctor at that time told me that I needed to stay on them so I didn't have a relapse along the way. Even with medication, there are some situations that one can't help but get depressed over. These are tough times for most people. Finances are being squeezed right and left. Having too much month at the end of the money is very hard to deal with, and it is almost impossible to keep from getting depressed over that situation!


    I would advise anyone who shows signs of depression to see a doctor. There is no shame in admitting to being depressed. It doesn't mean that one is mentally ill. Best of all, there is help to be had. All one has to do is get checked out, and help will be there. What an encouragement it is just to know that! :-)) - 10/25/2008 9:04:36 PM
  • Very informational piece. I once felt depressed and soon found out it was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading this article has helped me understand the depression I have been recently feeling. It's largely due to my weight, environment and financial status, but now I have targeted that and can move on to treating my depression, naturally. - 9/25/2008 12:50:35 PM
  • DKONERU
    This article is very interesting. There were some aspects of Depression that I never quite understood well. - 9/13/2008 12:43:17 AM

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