New Research Suggests a Gene Variant May Contribute to Depression
Why do some of us develop depression while others don't? The answer may lie in our genes, suggests new research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. People with variations of a gene that transports serotonin—a brain chemical that influences mood, sexual desire, and appetite—may be at greater risk of becoming depressed—particularly after being exposed to stressful events, like childhood abuse or a medical illness, according to researchers who analyzed 54 studies involving 41,000 participants from 2001 to 2010. That doesn't mean we should press doctors for a genetic test, though: Scientists disagree about whether there truly exists a link between the serotonin-transporter gene, stress, and depression. A 2009 analysis of 14 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no association, while a 2003 study of 800 subjects found the opposite.
If you've been diagnosed with depression, lifestyle changes may offer some relief, U.S. News reported in 2009.
Many mental-health practitioners are coming to believe that adjusting brain chemistry with medication isn't enough—that depression is a complex chronic disease, akin to diabetes, requiring lifestyle changes and ongoing monitoring to address underlying causes. As with diabetes, experts have begun to look for culprits in the 21st-century lifestyle. Might the isolating, sedentary, indoor computer culture explain, for example, why the disorder appears to be surging in young adults? Today's 20-somethings have a 1-in-4 lifetime risk of experiencing depression's hallmark black mood, joylessness, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts compared with the 1-in-10 risk of their grandparents' generation. Americans are 10 times as likely to have depression today as they were 60 years ago, a development that is not merely a result of increased awareness and diagnosis.
There's certainly evidence that vigorous exercise has an effect on mood. Madhukar Trivedi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and others have shown that burning off 350 calories three times a week in sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. Brain-imaging studies indicate that exercise stimulates the growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged during depression. And animal studies have found that physical exertion increases the production of brain molecules that improve connections between nerve cells and act as a natural antidepressant. Sunlight or light-box exposure often helps people prone to seasonal affective disorder. And there's no doubt that getting a decent night's sleep can lift the spirits. Nutrition may play a role, too: It's fairly well established that those who eat the most fish have the lowest rates of depression.
Realizing that primitive societies like the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea experience virtually no depression, Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, has been testing a cave-man-esque approach to treatment with promising results. His 14-week Therapeutic Lifestyle Change program entails large doses of simulated hunter-gatherer living in people suffering from prolonged, unremitting depression. Participants sign up for 35 minutes of aerobic exercise (running, walking briskly, biking) three days a week, at least 30 minutes of daily sunlight or exposure from a light box that emits 10,000 lux, eight hours of sleep per night, and a daily fish oil supplement containing 1,000 mg of the fatty acid EPA and 500 mg of the fatty acid DHA.
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