Tag Archives: mental illness

Depression And Allergies

More and more, researchers are starting to see a connection between allergies and depression. There is evidence of relationships in both directions, so allergies exacerbate depression, while depressive symptoms and affect make allergy symptoms worse. One study found that this connection is partly responsible for an uptick in suicides as winter turns into spring. Part of this is a hope that depression is merely seasonal being dashed—people tough it out through the winter but go into a decline when spring doesn’t bring improvement—but now it appears that allergens increasing in the springtime also bears on this phenomenon.

Depression is thought of as a mental illness, but the brain is part of the body, and there’s no bright line, medically speaking, between physical symptoms and mental ones. One place where this is apparent is allergic reactions causing depressive symptoms. Allergens are normally harmless substances, such as pollen, that trigger an immune response in people who are sensitive to them. Part of this immune response is inflammation. Inflammation can lead to a low feeling called dysthymia; this is why people who are sick feel awful. Dysthymia is also a symptom of depression. Some scientists have proposed that a hitherto underestimated cause of depression itself is inflammation due to allergy.

Meanwhile, stress is both a cause and an effect of depression. Depression can be a response, in part, to stress, but t can also increase it. Stress is also intimately bound up with the immune system The stress hormone cortisol temporarily suppresses the immune system, only for it to come back turned up after the stressor has passed. That means that stress, anxiety, and depression actually make allergic reactions worse, particularly on the second day. That means not only does stress directly lead to depression, it also increases depression as a result o the inflammation from an allergy attack.

In children, scientists have also found a genetic link between allergies and depression, as well as behavioral problems. While allergies themselves exacerbate depression, and allergies and depression alike are partly responsible for children misbehaving, there is evidence that genetics is behind a predisposition to allergies, a predisposition to depression, and a tendency to act out.

Finding Depression

Depression is a disease. It goes beyond simply being sad, or in a down mood—it is the result of chemical abnormalities in the brain. Sometimes people are born with these abnormalities, sometimes they come about due to another illness, or life experiences, and often, scientists believe it is a combination of these factors: people are born with a predisposition—which is sometimes genetic and sometimes not—to develop these abnormalities in response to events and circumstances.

Depression can be debilitating, even deadly. That’s why it’s important to identify it so appropriate treatment can be obtained. Symptoms of depression include the obvious sadness, lack of motivation, and changes in appetite—either an increase or lowered—but there can also be physical effects. Depressed people often experience otherwise inexplicable aches, and often fail to connect these to their mental state. Sleep problems are also common; as with appetite, this can take the form of insomnia or of sleeping too much. Depression might also bring anxiety, restlessness, and difficulty making decisions.

People who are exhibiting these or any other signs of depression, or who are undergoing stress but aren’t noticing symptoms, might benefit from getting screened for depression. In fact, more and more experts are recommending screening for all adults who have access to mental health care, whether or not they are showing any signs of depression. Mental illnesses in general, and depression in particular, are difficult to spot, both because they come on so gradually, and because they affect the area that notices symptoms, and screening people who thing they are health could have enormous public health benefits. Screenings are confidential and generally take less than an hour.

Now screening may be easier still. Researchers have developed a blood test that they say will help spot signs of depression as it starts to develop more easily than talk- and questionnaire-based screening techniques, and even spot people who are prone to depression before they experience it. The blood test looks for molecules in the blood that are characteristic of depression, can help differentiate types of depression, and may be able to help predict which course of treatment is likely to be most effective. Scientists say the test demonstrates that depression is an actual illness with a biochemical basis.

Suicide And Depression

The tragic death of comedian Robin Williams has brought new focus to the problem of suicide, which kills at least 800,000 people each year. Exact numbers are difficult to determine, because people who commit suicide often try to hide the fact, but it is believed to be the worlds tenth leading cause of death. This suggests that suicidal thoughts are quite common; one danger of media coverage of the death by suicide of a prominent person is the fear that it could lead others to emulate that person.

Suicide has been called "a permanent solution to a temporary problem," but all too often the problem doesn’t feel temporary to the person suffering. One reason for this is that depression and despair can have a distorting effect on one’s perceptions; in the words of the poet Alexander Pope, "all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye." In some cases, such as terminally ill patients suffering degenerative conditions, there may be some truth to the notion that the situation is hopeless, but otherwise there is almost always a brighter future than may be visible at the time. That is why people who are feeling suicidal are urged to get help, from a doctor, or a friend, or a helpline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.

This can be a complicated situation for the person reached out to, especially if that person is not trained. The best thing to do with a friend or relative who has expressed a suicidal feelings is to ask direct questions, though in a non-judgmental way if possible, about the person’s state of mind. Many people are reluctant to do this for fear it will be the final push, but generally it’s the opposite. Often people become suicidal when they feel they have no room to express these feelings. Someone to talk to, someone who encourages them to open up, can be tremendously helpful. If someone is talking about suicide, this is not a sign they won’t do it; although suicide is frequently an impulsive act, someone thinking and talking about suicide often is more likely to go through with it.

Serotonin And Serotonin Syndrome

A neurotransmitter—a type of chemical used by the nervous system to carry signals from one place to another—called serotonin is synthesized out of a nutrient called tryptophan, which is part of proteins in the brain and in the intestines. Most of it, as much as 90 percent, is in the gut, where it is a part of the digestive process. Serotonin regulates appetite and is responsible for the body's response to poisons and other things that are not fit to eat.

The rest, the serotonin produced and used in the brain, is separate. The blood-brain barrier keeps serotonin in the brain from going to the gut, and vice-versa; the level in one is not effected by the level in the other. Serotonin in the brain is related to mood balance and social behavior. The two functions are not unrelated; among humans, social status is a part of how well one eats. Even in civilization, social occasions often involve food. Culture recognizes the link between interaction and appetite.

Serotonin is also associated with clinical depression. Depression often includes poor motivation and low libido and sexual response, and depressed people have low levels of serotonin in the brain, where it regulates those things. It is not clear whether low serotonin causes depression or depression reduces serotonin levels, but it seems that the low serotonin in turn affects libido and motivation.

That's why depressive patients are advised to eat healthy and get exercise and sunlight, all of which boost serotonin production. It's also why treatment for depression includes a class of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These SSRIs prevent serotonin produced in the brain from being reabsorbed after it is used. With more serotonin around, these symptoms often diminish.

However, an excess of serotonin can also cause problems, specifically, a condition called serotonin syndrome. This condition, which is almost always a result of SSRIs or other medications that cause serotonin to accumulate, can result in nausea or diarrhea as well as restlessness, confusion, twitching, perspiration, shivering, and goose bumps. In severe cases it can cause fever, irregular heartbeat, and seizures. The symptoms usually go away when the medication is stopped or adjusted, but can be fatal if ignored.

Neurological Conditions, Mental Illness, And Developmental Disability

Scientists investigating developmental disability have come to the conclusion that these disabilities, mental illnesses, and neurological disease are all aspects of the same type of disorder. Under current models, the three types of condition are perceived as clinically distinct, meaning that they are treated as different and unrelated disorders, with different causes, different prognoses, and different courses of treatment. However, there is a growing body of opinion that, rather than being distinct, these conditions exist along a continuum, and are all fundamentally linked.

"Recent genetic studies conducted in thousands of individuals have shown that identical genetic mutations are shared among neurodevelopmental disorders that are thought to be clinically distinct," said autism researcher Andres Moreno De Luca, M.D., a co-author of a recent article laying out this new model, in a statement. "What we have seen over the past few years is that genetic mutations that were initially found in individuals with one disorder, such as intellectual disability or autism, are then identified in people with an apparently different condition like schizophrenia, epilepsy, or bipolar disorder."

This model means that the research techniques and approaches used for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia can also be brought to bear on intellectual disabilities. It means the treatment approaches used for mental illnesses may also have application for neurological disorders thought to be untreatable. Perhaps more importantly, demonstrating an underlying genetic or biological abnormality linking all these conditions could go a long way towards eroding the stigma attached to them, a stigma which in some cases does more to impede people in society than the conditions themselves.

As for what this underlying cause is, this remains unclear. However, recent studies have found a link between treatments for male infertility and both developmental issues and autism in the resultant offspring. The risk was associated with an in vitro technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which a miniature syringe is used to inject a single sperm cell directly into an ovum under a microscope. This procedure is reserved for severe cases of male infertility.

Diabetes And Depression

Psychiatrists and other doctors treating depression are being advised to be judicious about prescribing antidepressants to patients at risk for type 2 diabetes, in the wake of new findings suggesting a link between the medications and likelihood of developing diabetes. The mechanism is unclear; while some antidepressants are known to cause weight gain, which is a diabetes risk factor, some of the studies researchers looked at showed a connection even when accounting for weight and other risk factors. The results even held when accounting for the diabetes risk factors, such as inactivity, poor diet, and smoking.

"While depression is an important clinical problem and antidepressants are effective treatments for this debilitating condition, clinicians need to be aware of the potential risk of diabetes, particularly when using antidepressants in higher doses or for longer duration," said Richard Holt, one of the researchers involved in the latest study, in a statement. "When prescribing antidepressants, doctors should be aware of this risk and take steps to monitor for diabetes and reduce that risk of diabetes through lifestyle modification."

Other risk factors include a family history of diabetes, being over 45, having developed gestational diabetes during pregnancy, or having given birth to a baby over nine pounds. People who are black, Hispanic, or of Asian or Pacific Island decent are also more prone to type 2 diabetes. Some health conditions tend to lead to diabetes also. People with high blood pressure, low levels of HDL cholesterol, or high triglyceride levels are likely to develop the conditions. People with these conditions should be cautious about taking antidepressants for a long time or at high doses.

In contract, the hormone melatonin, often taken in supplement form as a sleep aid, might help prevent diabetes. A study in Boston found that people with lower levels of melatonin in their blood are more than twice as likely to develop diabetes. This only raises the possibility that raising a person;s level of the hormone will prevent diabetes, but it is known that melatonin can prevent or reduce weight gain, lowering diabetes risk that way.

Depression, the Disease

Today is World Mental Health Day, which this year is focused on clinical depression. Depression is more than just a blue mood. It is an organic illness that actually has a constellation of effects and symptoms, of which feeling down is only one. Depression also has a number of physical effects, and can be treated by medications and even dietary changes.

Depression, as an illness, is the result of chemical changes in the brain. What causes these changes is unclear; it is likely that some people’s brains are congenitally prone to undergo these changes as a result of life stress—in other words, it is a combination of internal and external factors. Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, medications such as steroids, and alcohol and drug abuse can exacerbate depression and increase the risk. Depression is known to run in families, though people do develop the condition without a family history.

Like many illnesses, depression can have physical effects. Changes in appetite and corresponding fluctuations in weight is one of the more obvious effects, but there are others as well. Depression tends to lead to sleep problems—fatigue, trouble falling asleep, trouble getting up. People with depression often have achiness with no apparent cause.

There are a variety of medications for depression. Different ones may be effective for different people, and it can take some experimenting to find the drug with the right balance of usefulness against depression and no or acceptable and tolerable side effects.

Moreover, some people prefer not to rely on, or solely on, medications to control depression. For some, counseling is sufficient. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is designed to teach people to break maladaptive habits, and can be used with or without pharmaceutical treatment. Dietary changes may be effective; giving up alcohol removes a major factor in depression, and recent studies have linked depressive symptoms to vitamin D deficiency, which mean simply getting more sunlight can help. Some people have found that removing all sources of stress from their lives eliminated depression, but this requires such drastic lifestyle changes—up to and including quitting your job, getting rid of most of your possessions, and moving to a new place—that it may not be practical for most people. Less extreme simplification of your life, however, can be helpful, as can a change in environment if your living situation might have subtle depressive triggers or negative associations.