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A peek at the biology behind depression
We often associate too much stress with depression.
Stress is NOT the problem
But, stress happens – it’s NOT a new phenomenon. Since time began, humans have experienced stress. In fact, truth be told, stress adds life.
Some people thrive and some people fall apart.
Why ? And why are more and more people “falling” apart ?
Well to answer the question, we need to take a peek at the biology behind depression.
The energy crisis
The problem with stress, from a body chemistry perspective, is it’s an energy crisis.
But the body is equipped to handle stress.
In fact, we don’t just have one stress system, we have two….
The stress management systems :
- The first is the sympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “fight and flight” response. From the name, you can tell, it is designed to deal with stress IN THE MOMENT. The key player here is ADRENALINE.
- The second system, is the HPA axis. This system is there to help you cope with stress that goes on for a longer period of time, think hours, not days. The key player here, is cortisol.
Cortisol is a good guy
Now contrary to what you might think, cortisol is a good guy. When you’re facing a “situation”, having a gun slinging cowboy ,on your side is a good thing.
In fact, if it wasn’t for cortisol, you wouldn’t have got out of bed this morning.
Seriously. Getting up and going every morning is a mammoth undertaking. FOR EVERYONE ! Not just the sleep deprived. So, to get you up and going, a dollop of cortisol is drop kicked into play, shortly before you open your eyes.
Now the way cortisol get’s you moving, is he diverts sugar to your brain.
The cortisol rhythm
So cortisol is there to get you going, but once you’re going, you should be okay.
Unless something BAD HAPPENS.
So cortisol levels peak around 9 am in the morning and then they steadily decline.
Well this is what happens on an average day……
A stressful day
If you’ve lived through a hurricane – your cortisol will rocket up, giving you the energy you need to SURVIVE.
Basically what happens, is your hypothalamus perceives TROUBLE. It tells the pituitary, which tells the adrenal gland to dump cortisol into the circulation. The cortisol then does it’s thing……
But, there is an OFF SWITCH.
So, cortisol levels should never really BE TOO HIGH……….
A stress full life
Yes but, for most people the level of stress they’re experiencing is NOT hurricane level.
So does the stress response in this situation, work different.
Nope. The off switch STILL WORKS !
Having said that, in the stressed out/depressed people, there is a cortisol issue. They have too much cortisol and too little, at the same time.
What’s really happens is the rhythm is broken…..
So what can be done about it ?
Well, since a world without stress doesn’t exist, the best we can do, is to lighten the load, a little. Now to figure out how to do this, we need to understand what stress is – it’s complicated.
Most of the time, we think of stress as the things that we can see. You can think of them as being above ground. And when it comes to STRESS management, this is what is the focus. Rightly so.
But, it is important to realize, that there is an unseen side of stress, metabolic stress.
I like to think of it as bad body chemistry. And this is what tips people over the edge.
So what causes BAD BODY CHEMISTRY ?
In a word, lifestyle. We have people who “eat too much and move too little” and then we have people who “move too much and eat too little”.
Both groups can find themselves DEPRESSED.
So now that we understand what stress is, what can be done about it.
Lifting the load
Well, our focus is to the lift the load, there are multiple ways to do this
- Providing actual hands on support, is hugely helpful.
- Emotional and social support, can also make a big difference.
- An anti-depressant prescription, can provide some relief, so sometimes this is an option worth exploring.
But, to really lighten the load, the body chemistry MUST also be addressed.
Just eat less and move more
Now most of the time, when people talk life style, they focus on diet and exercise.
I could do that, but I won’t.
The reason, if someone is depressed, they don’t want to hear this. Deep down inside they already know, making changes in these departments, would make a big difference.
They would, if they could, but they can’t !
They don’t have the energy or bandwidth to do this.
What if I told you, you can improve body chemistry and it would actually be relatively easy.
Lightening the load
The secret to LIGHTening the load….. is in THE LIGHT.
Remember cortisol is supposed to keep a “tight” schedule, that is levels are high early in the day and then drop off, to rise again.
So what determines cortisol’s timing ?
Well, it turns out, there is a special part of your brain, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short, which regulates your body’s timing. Now it is not the only clock you have, in fact, every organ in your body, has a clock, but they take their cue from the SCN, which is seen as “the masterclock”.
So how does the masterclock tell time ?
Well it correlates the amount of light, falling on retinal ganglion cells with body function. This information is then passed on, to all the body parts stuck in the dark – so they too can synch their clocks.
One of the ways it does this is through cortisol – so you can think of cortisol as the hands of the clock.
But there is a back door…..
Serotonin tweaks the clock
The SCN is also influenced by serotonin. It turns out, serotonin can shift the clock during the day and make the clock, insensitive to light at night.
Maybe some of you are thinking. FINALLY !
I thought depression was all about a serotonin shortage.
You’re right, depressed people have a serotonin imbalance, which is why anti-depressant medications, which are designed to increase serotonin, help.
So where does cortisol fit in ?
Cortisol controls serotonin production
Well, it turns out, serotonin is controlled by, you guessed it, CORTISOL. High levels of cortisol, increase serotonin production, so serotonin levels are high in the day and low at night.
Assuming your circadian rhythm is normal.
Of course, when you’re stressed out, cortisol levels are not normal, so serotonin levels are not normal either. Leading to a whole bunch of other problems, because serotonin is a regulator of the neurotransmission.
This cheeky little guy is a master connector.
On average, a serotonergic neuron, connects to 500 000 other neurons. There 17 different types of serotonin receptors, ultimately controlling a whole bunch of things.
Depression anyone ?
The quick recap
Depression is characterized by serotonin imbalances.
“Stress” which can be psychological or metabolic, is characterized by cortisol imbalances.
Cortisol impacts serotonin levels.And light impacts cortisol.
And people living in the modern world, have light problems, BIG TIME !
The light issue
Basically when it comes to light exposure , we’ve got it completely back to front.
We’re exposed to low levels of light during the day and relatively high levels at night.
There are two sides to the problem, let’s start with the too little in day….
Light bulbs are NOT sunshine
No matter how bright the lights are inside, they’re don’t compare to the amount of light you experience outside, even on a cloudy day.
The magic number you must be exposed to early in the morning is at least 500 lux.
It doesn’t sound like a lot, considering that even on a cloudy day, you get 1000 lux of brightness if you go outside. Most indoor environments only register 200 to 300 lux. Of course, corner offices are better than basements, but you really do need to go outside.
And no the hour commute to work, in you air conditioned car, is NOT being outside.
You have to open the window and stick your head out, for the car to be considered “outdoors”…..
Getting enough light
As a guide :
Aim for 30 minutes of outdoors everyday,
The earlier in the day the better, definitely before noon.
Ideally at around the same time everyday.
What about the light at night ?
Fire light is the kind of light which is ideal – it has a red glow to it. Unfortunately this is NOT the type of light we typically experience. The light coming from electronic devices has a blue tinge to it.
And this is upsetting for melatonin, your night valet.
He is afraid of the blue light, he hides in the pineal cupboard.
This is why, melatonin is only out and about at night. If it’s NOT dark he’s NOT OUT and getting a good night’s sleep is going to be a serious challenge, something that is very common in someone with depression.
So what can you do to encourage melatonin to put in an appearance ?
Go dark at night
Well give your phone a bed time.
Avoid using electronic devices an hour or so, before going to be, power them down. If this is NOT an option, take precautions. For example, you can wear eyeware, designed to block out the blue light.
MAKE SURE you’re SLEEPING IN THE DARK
Most of us don’t. Studies suggest NOT sleeping in the dark, increases your risk of breast cancer, obesity, insomnia AND depression.
So how can you ensure you sleep in the dark ?
Block out the light. This can be done by closing doors, hanging thick lined curtaining or blinds and slapping on an eye mask, so you limit the light you’re being exposed to, in bed.
GET AN ALARM CLOCK
Time stamping in the middle of the night with your phone – sends melatonin scurrying.
To see in THE DARK
And if you’re AFRAID of the dark or MUST GET UP TO PEE or breastfeed , make sure the light you’re exposed to is or mimics candle light.
Lightening the load
Lightening the load, will go along way to helping you cope with all the other stresses in your life.
Protecting you from depression through BETTER BODY CHEMISTRY.
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