The Science Behind Depression
The impact that depression has on your daily life is noticeable. When you are depressed, even the smallest task can feel overwhelming or futile. People that suffer from depression are often unable to get out of bed, leave their house, go to work, or maintain healthy relationships. Left untreated, depression can become an all-consuming illness that controls the way you think, feel, and act. It’s important to understand how depression works.
However, although depression is a mental illness, its symptoms influence much more than just the mind.
Recent studies have found evidence that depression doesn’t just alter our brain chemistry, it also modifies our DNA and the way our cells produce energy.
DNA, Depression, and Energy Loss
Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in the United Kingdom investigated the DNA of 11,500 women that suffered from depression. They found significant metabolic changes in their cells, which they believe were triggered by this illness.
Depression is often caused by stress. When we encounter bad situations, our natural instinct is to internalize the negativity. As negative emotions build-up, it becomes more and more challenging to separate ourselves from the conflict that surrounds us.
Researchers discovered that women who were suffering from stress-related depression had more mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) than their peers.
Mitochondria are organelles – tiny structures living inside a cell – that produce energy for cells. According to this team of researchers, this is evidence that mitochondria are less efficient under stress. As a result of this inefficiency, more mitochondria are needed to produce enough energy for each cell to function effectively.
This metabolic change can contribute to the feelings of lethargy and exhaustion that depression sufferers often experience.
DNA, Depression, and Shorter Life Expectancy
Researchers also found that women with stress-related depression had shorter telomeres than non-sufferers. Telomeres are the endcaps on chromosomes that stop genetic material from unraveling. Telomeres naturally shorten as we age, and short telomeres are associated with shorter life spans.
Researchers believed that this process was sped up by depression – and decided to confirm their hypothesis on a group of mice. Over the course of four weeks, researchers placed mice in stressful situations and monitored their DNA for genetic changes. This study revealed that the mice, similar to the women, developed an increase in mitochondrial DNA and had shorter telomeres, when placed under stress.
Depression is Treatable
Molecular changes in the body are our body’s way of coping with stress. Stress-induced depression alters our body’s DNA, and influences not only our mental health, but our physical well-being as well.
The good news is – these symptoms of depression are not permanent.
Researchers noticed that these effects in mice were reversed when the mice were removed from the stressful conditions that they had been placed under.
Although there is still significant research that needs to be done, scientists have made great strides. One of the first steps in treating depression is understanding and identifying its far-reaching symptoms. Once we’re able to recognize its effects, we will be able to more effectively and efficiently heal, and to further understand how depression works.