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The Serotonin – Depression Connection

Recent articles( such as this piece from psychcentral.com have posited the notion that serotonin is not a significant component of the depressive process .Further, that drug companies, having developed serotonin enhancing medicines, began an advertising campaign to “convince” the public that serotonin was the “cure” for depression.The idea that drug companies would conspire to mislead the public is quite questionable ( although I do enjoy a good conspiracy theory). One of the problems is that we cannot measure serotonin in the brain directly. Further, if we manipulate serotonin with an SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor), this also disturbs the balance of norepinephrine and dopamine- two of the major neurotransmitters. Now, it is really more complicated than this. There are many sub-types of each of these substances so it is not a simple matter of manipulating one of these chemicals.There are also many sub-types of receptor sites in the brain. The more we learn about the chemistry and structure of the brain, the more complicated it becomes.

The data from numerous studies indicates that psychotropic medications may only work about 50% of the time. In addition, psychiatrists may have to try a number of different medications in order to gain a positive effect. Of course, patient compliance is always a problem. It is not a good idea to wash your Prozac down with scotch whiskey – but I have had a number of patients who have done just that!

Michael Greger points out that diet ( whole food plant based nutrition) and exercise may be just as effective as some anti-depressants. While there is merit to this assertion, trying to get a depressed patient to exercise and eat properly is quite challenging – to say the least! It is my impression that “comfort foods” carbohydrates, potatoes, bread, mac and cheese act as “comfort foods” because they do, in fact, raise serotonin levels along with a number of other “calming” chemicals (such as tryptophan) that do cross the blood-brain barrier. Unfortunately, a bag of potato chips only increases serotonin levels for a couple of hours.

It does appear that cortisol is a precipitating chemical in the depressive process and influences a decrease in certain neurotransmitters. Indeed, being in a stressful situation for two to six weeks can trigger a depressive episode. This is chemistry, not “psychological” weakness. The notion that neurotransmitters are the causal factors in the depressive process is strengthened by the apparent genetic relationships within families. If we examine the family of origin of a depressed patient we will find both genetic and psychogenic factors that contribute to the depressive process. Further, it is interesting to note that if a particular antidepressant medication is effective for a “blood relative” ( biological parent or sibling) there is a high probability that the medicine will be effective for the patient.

The “holy grail” of treatment for depression will not be easily discerned. Light therapy can be effective. Likewise, trans-cranial stimulation shows promise. Various approaches in psychotherapy can be quite effective. However, anti-depressant medicines will continue to be a major component of treatment.Columbia Counseling Center’s integrated treatment protocol carefully evaluates the multiple causal factors in depression and provides both pharmacological and psychotherapeutic approaches for maximum effective treatment of depression.
Call 410 992 9149 for the next available appointment.