Although studies continue to provide evidence for the different ways in which neurotransmitters relate to depression, research clearly shows that there is a connection between the two. Let’s explore neurotransmitters and their role in depression as well as the brain.
With more than 264 million people around the world living with some form of depression, most of us are probably familiar with the condition. We hear about depression in TED Talks, we read about it on social media, we share statistics about it, and the majority of us know people living with it. But regardless of how much or how little we know about depression, we need to understand that the condition represents more than a sudden mood change or a temporary emotional reaction. Instead, depression is an unshakable feeling of sadness that affects every part of our lives.
What is Depression?
The National Institute of Mental Health describes depression as a common but serious mood disorder that negatively determines how we think, feel, and behave. Depression makes normal day-to-day activities difficult to complete and, at its worst, can make us believe that life itself isn’t worth living. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls depression the leading cause of disability worldwide yet most of us are unaware of the condition’s symptoms or its root causes.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression can take many different forms. Sometimes, signs that indicate depression are obvious, such as feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness. But other times, symptoms of depression, such as feeling extremely tired or having trouble thinking, are less obvious. Other signs of depression include:
- Expressing anger and frustration over small matters
- Losing interest in things we once enjoyed like sports, hobbies, sex, and going out with our friends
- Experiencing insomnia, having trouble sleeping, or even sleeping too much
- Having little to no energy for small tasks or chronic fatigue
- Feeling anxious, agitated, empty, and restless
- Experiencing unexplained physical pain like headaches, cramps, digestive problems, or back pain
- Thinking about death or suicide repeatedly
- Obsessing over our past failures and feeling guilty, worthless, and a sense of self-hatred
- Lacking an appetite and losing weight or having a larger appetite that leads to weight gain
Children and teenagers experiencing depression tend to show signs that include:
- Complaining about unexplained aches and pain
- Refusing to go to school
- Feeling misunderstood and extremely sensitive
- Performing poorly in school
- Using recreational drugs or drinking alcohol
- Clinging onto others
- Avoiding social interaction with others
- Attempting self-harm
- Eating and sleeping too much
Whether we’re feeling overwhelming sadness, unexplained pain in our body, or losing interest in things we once loved, most symptoms of depression are severe enough to cause noticeable disruptions to our daily lives. No matter how hard we might try to control, hide, or ignore the signs, eventually, they’ll begin to cause problems for us at work, school, and, most often, home.
So when we feel depressed, or experience any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, we should call our doctor as soon as possible. Calling a trusted friend, loved one, mentor, or spiritual leader is a good idea, too. That’s one of the best ways for us to get the help we need when our world feels dark and hopeless.
What Causes Depression In The Brain?
One of the most difficult aspects of understanding depression is pinpointing its root causes, as they vary from person to person. Sometimes, the reason is clear, such as witnessing or living through a traumatic event. Other times, the reason for depression is subtle and hidden under layers of suppressed memories. There are even times when we’re depressed for no clear reason. To help us understand why depression can manifest itself in so many different ways, researchers study the brain. Since our brains control, manage and balance our emotions, they are the key to understanding how and why we develop depression in the first place.
A Harvard Medical School special report, “Understanding Depression” explains the condition like this: “Certain areas of the brain help regulate mood. Researchers believe that—more important than levels of specific brain chemicals—nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression.”
Many of us blame our brain “chemistry” for depression or anxiety. But research like the report above indicates that the brain’s role in depression is much more complex than simply regulating emotions. Instead, the difference between a person who struggles with depression and a person who does not may have more to do with how the different parts of our brain work together.
In some cases, the connections in our brains aren’t as strong as they should be, while sometimes the cells in our brain may have grown differently. In other cases, one or more of our neurons may send incorrect information through different areas of our brain. When our brain acts in such ways, we may experience the kind of biochemical trauma that can cause depression, even if we haven’t lived through any kind of emotional, physical, or spiritual trauma in our lives.
When different parts of our brains aren’t communicating, chemical messengers called neurotransmitters are often involved. This is because neurotransmitters help make sure the different parts of our brains work well together.
Let’s explore more about neurotransmitters and their role in the brain.
What are Neurotransmitters?
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that our central nervous system uses to carry different kinds of signals between nerve cells throughout our brain and body. Neurotransmitters work 24 hours a day and seven days a week to keep our brains and bodies functioning. They help manage things like how well or poorly we breathe, how fast or slow our heart beats, and how quickly or slowly our body moves.
Neurotransmitters work by acting like lines connecting the dots between our brain and body. In other words, in order for the cells in our brain to send messages throughout our body, they need to be connected to one another. Synapses, or tiny gaps at the end of each nerve cell, allow neurons to send signals to each other. When cells want to communicate with each other, the brain releases neurotransmitters in order to send these signals back and forth throughout the nerve cells in the brain.
Although experts continue to study the brain, researchers believe certain neurotransmitters have a connection with depression, including:
Key Neurotransmitters and Depression
- Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and a hormone that sends “flight or fight” messages throughout different cells in our brains. It also plays an important role in how our brains and bodies process and interpret the hormone adrenaline. Located in our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our body’s rapid, involuntary responses to dangerous or stressful situations, norepinephrine is also known for constricting blood vessels and raising blood pressure.
- Serotonin helps regulate our mood. It also sends messages throughout the brain that let us know when we need to eat, digest, and sleep. In addition to that, serotonin sends signals that reduce pain, regulate anxiety, stimulate nausea, heal wounds, and block pain, too. Despite what most of us might think, most of the serotonin in our bodies is in the gut, not the brain. Regardless of that, serotonin plays a central role in relaying messages about our emotional state.
- Known as a “feel good” chemical, dopamine sends positive signals related to reward. When dopamine transmits a message between our neurons, our brains receive positive reinforcement and we’re encouraged to perform that dopamine-triggering activity again. Because dopamine sends pleasurable messages between nerve cells, this neurotransmitter helps motivate us and stimulates our interest in certain activities, people, and places.
Other neurotransmitters that affect our emotions and mood include:
- Glutamate, which sends excitement signals that encourage us to learn new things and recall memories.
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which controls communication between brain cells by blocking certain signals and decreasing the activity in our central nervous system, calming us. Basically, GABA helps us deal with fear, anxiety, and stress.
What Role Do Neurotransmitters Play in Depression?
Although studies continue to provide evidence for the different ways in which neurotransmitters relate to depression, research clearly shows that there is a connection between the two.
“The ultimate goal in treating the biology of depression is to improve the brain’s ability to regulate mood,” explains a Harvard Medical School special report. “We now know that neurotransmitters are not the only important part of the machinery. But let’s not diminish their importance either. They are deeply involved in how nerve cells communicate with one another.” When the communication between nerve cells is impaired or weakened in any way, we’re more likely to experience depression.
Researchers now believe that there is a connection between low levels of certain neurotransmitter chemicals and depression.
Low Levels of Neurotransmitters
Historically, researchers believed that low levels of neurotransmitters caused depression. Today, experts aren’t entirely sure if depression lowers neurotransmitters itself or if low levels of neurotransmitters cause depression. What scientists do know, however, is that lower levels of neurotransmitters decrease the amount of nerve cell communication that occurs in the brain. When this happens, the brain may not receive the signals it needs to know when to fight, flight, experience pleasure, sleep, eat, reduce pain, or ease anxiety. This disconnect can cause us to experience symptoms of depression like insomnia, decreased appetite, or irritability.
Low levels of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine are also associated with various aspects of depression. When our bodies produce low levels of these neurotransmitters, our odds of experiencing symptoms of depression can increase.
Low Levels of Norepinephrine
Since norepinephrine controls our “fight or flight” response and body movements, low levels of this neurotransmitter can cause anxiety, high blood pressure, and physical pain. Other symptoms of low norepinephrine levels include:
- Migraine headaches
- Loss of alertness
- Lack of arousal and interest in doing things
- Foggy brain and trouble concentrating
- Feeling unmotivated
Low Levels of Serotonin
When our serotonin levels are low, we have may feel less contentment or well-being. Naturally, that can leave us feeling empty, anxious, frustrated, and worthless, which are all symptoms of depression. We might also experience other signs of depression, including:
- Dissatisfaction or feeling unhappy, frustrated, and angry
- Trouble staying positive or experiencing a lack of joy
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling well-rested
- Consistent low mood
- Losing pleasure in things we once enjoyed
Low Levels of Dopamine
Similar to serotonin, low levels of dopamine affect how much pleasure we feel on a daily basis. At the same time, dopamine also affects our motivation and habits. As a result, low dopamine levels can lead to a loss of interest in activities we once enjoyed, as well as other symptoms including:
- Hopelessness and dread
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Trouble starting and finishing projects
- Losing our temper after a minor setback
- Difficulty managing stress
- Anger, irritability, and aggressiveness
- Apathy toward family and friends
- A desire to be alone or isolated
Other reasons for low levels of neurotransmitters can include:
- Not having enough receptor sites to receive the neurotransmitter’s message
- Cells absorbing the neurotransmitter back up before it reaches the receptor cell
- Having too few of the molecules that build neurotransmitters
Scientists are hard at work exploring the connection between neurotransmitters and depression and new insights are forthcoming.
Nerve Cell Connections: Incorrect or Weakened Signals
We may also experience depression when our neurotransmitters send weak, incorrect, or impaired messages. In many ways, neurotransmitters are like the childhood game “Telephone.” Nerve cells rely on neurotransmitters to relay the right message at the right time. When this happens, the brain functions in balance. But if the neurotransmitters send a weak or garbled signal for any reason, the entire process can be thrown off balance, just like in the game “Telephone.”
Once the receptor cell accepts the weakened message, it’s passed onto another nerve cell in our brain. But instead of the original message, the receiving nerve cell transmits the weakened or garbled message. Once our brain loses this balance, it begins to experience a biochemical trauma that can lead to depression. This often accounts for depression that seemingly appears “out of nowhere” despite positive life circumstances and a lack of immediate trauma.
How Is Depression Treated?
Researchers continue to study the brain to understand the connection between neurotransmitters and depression. Depression is a complex condition that can be caused and affected by a variety of different variables. Whether an individual is experiencing low levels of a particular neurotransmitter or is having garbled communication between parts of the brain, our neurological health plays a critical role in our experience of depression.
Luckily, there is hope. Medications like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) may help restore that balance and improve life for people living with depression. Psychotherapy can also help depression sufferers cope with their experiences. At StoneRidge Centers, our depression treatment program incorporates techniques like brain mapping, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and a carefully maintained “Brain Diet,” which focuses on the connection between nutrition and brain health.
Here at StoneRidge Centers, we take the best treatment programs science has to offer and provide them to you with care and compassion. Call us today at 844-475-HOPE if you or a loved one are living with depression.
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