Depression: Causes

Reviewed Jul 10, 2017

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Summary

Depression can be caused by:

  • Brain chemicals
  • Life events and stress
  • How we see ourselves

There are many ideas about what causes sadness that is bad enough to be called a sickness. One idea is that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. Since we are made of chemicals, this might be true. There are many ways the chemicals can become uneven.

Another idea is that depression runs in families. Scientists have shown that you are more likely to get it if a parent, brother, or sister has had a serious depression. Some people are born with traits that cause brain cells under many kinds of stress to have problems. These kinds of problems can change the levels of vital brain compounds. Those compounds, which include norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, are the main regulators of mood. 

Understanding brain chemicals

Brain chemicals can be affected by medicines when they are misused, and by street drugs. Some medications can lower brain chemicals that are vital in keeping the mood steady and good.

Brain compounds are also affected by diseases like hormone problems, cancer, infections, digestive/dietary disorders and serious sleep problems. Low thyroid, high blood sugar, lung cancer, viral infections like mono, certain food intolerances or vitamin deficiencies, and some sleep problems can make people feel unhappy and show signs of depression. Alcohol and other recreational drugs also change brain compounds. Even if alcohol can be helpful to health when used in appropriately small amounts, drinking too much over time can bring on low spirits..

The role of life events and stress

Chemical changes are not the whole story. If they were, it would be rare to meet an identical twin with depression whose brother or sister did not have it. Research on depression teaches us that it can also be caused by hard life events. When a loved one dies, for example, the grief can turn into serious sadness that lasts. When a relationship is lost, or a good job ends, depression sometimes arises.

Very bad long-term stress, like caring for a sick relative, can cause low spirits. Scary or cruel events during childhood can cause low spirits later on. Social isolation can also lead into or add to depression. All these kinds of events can be even worse on people whose brain chemistry is more at risk than that of others. Medications alone may not be enough to help a person who has been under great stress. Talking with a trained therapist can help a lot.

How we see ourselves

The ideas that we have about ourselves often shape our moods and actions. We all have ways we see ourselves and expect things to happen. For example, you may have had a painfully cruel childhood during which you were physically beaten. You may come to feel that you are deserving of criticism or punishment. This belief can bring on or worsen a low mood. Ideas about ourselves are very strong in this way.

When we think about all these kinds of causes at the same time, we are understanding depression as a combination of several things. They and other forms of treatment can affect biology and health problems. The psychological part of this term is about those ideas we form and sometimes cherish about ourselves. They can be harmful to the way we see ourselves. The social part is about long-lasting problems relating to others as a result of the sickness. At the same time, these viewpoints offer a way to learn the causes of depression and to think over many choices for care.

By James M. Ellison, MD, MPH
Source: Kendler KS. The dappled nature of causes of psychiatric illness: replacing the organic–functional/hardware–software dichotomy with empirically based pluralism. Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication Jan. 10, 2012; doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.182; Schatzberg AF, Nemeroff CB. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Psychopharmacology. Washington D.C., American Psychiatric Press, 2003.
Reviewed by Mario Testani, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

Summary

Depression can be caused by:

  • Brain chemicals
  • Life events and stress
  • How we see ourselves

There are many ideas about what causes sadness that is bad enough to be called a sickness. One idea is that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. Since we are made of chemicals, this might be true. There are many ways the chemicals can become uneven.

Another idea is that depression runs in families. Scientists have shown that you are more likely to get it if a parent, brother, or sister has had a serious depression. Some people are born with traits that cause brain cells under many kinds of stress to have problems. These kinds of problems can change the levels of vital brain compounds. Those compounds, which include norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, are the main regulators of mood. 

Understanding brain chemicals

Brain chemicals can be affected by medicines when they are misused, and by street drugs. Some medications can lower brain chemicals that are vital in keeping the mood steady and good.

Brain compounds are also affected by diseases like hormone problems, cancer, infections, digestive/dietary disorders and serious sleep problems. Low thyroid, high blood sugar, lung cancer, viral infections like mono, certain food intolerances or vitamin deficiencies, and some sleep problems can make people feel unhappy and show signs of depression. Alcohol and other recreational drugs also change brain compounds. Even if alcohol can be helpful to health when used in appropriately small amounts, drinking too much over time can bring on low spirits..

The role of life events and stress

Chemical changes are not the whole story. If they were, it would be rare to meet an identical twin with depression whose brother or sister did not have it. Research on depression teaches us that it can also be caused by hard life events. When a loved one dies, for example, the grief can turn into serious sadness that lasts. When a relationship is lost, or a good job ends, depression sometimes arises.

Very bad long-term stress, like caring for a sick relative, can cause low spirits. Scary or cruel events during childhood can cause low spirits later on. Social isolation can also lead into or add to depression. All these kinds of events can be even worse on people whose brain chemistry is more at risk than that of others. Medications alone may not be enough to help a person who has been under great stress. Talking with a trained therapist can help a lot.

How we see ourselves

The ideas that we have about ourselves often shape our moods and actions. We all have ways we see ourselves and expect things to happen. For example, you may have had a painfully cruel childhood during which you were physically beaten. You may come to feel that you are deserving of criticism or punishment. This belief can bring on or worsen a low mood. Ideas about ourselves are very strong in this way.

When we think about all these kinds of causes at the same time, we are understanding depression as a combination of several things. They and other forms of treatment can affect biology and health problems. The psychological part of this term is about those ideas we form and sometimes cherish about ourselves. They can be harmful to the way we see ourselves. The social part is about long-lasting problems relating to others as a result of the sickness. At the same time, these viewpoints offer a way to learn the causes of depression and to think over many choices for care.

By James M. Ellison, MD, MPH
Source: Kendler KS. The dappled nature of causes of psychiatric illness: replacing the organic–functional/hardware–software dichotomy with empirically based pluralism. Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication Jan. 10, 2012; doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.182; Schatzberg AF, Nemeroff CB. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Psychopharmacology. Washington D.C., American Psychiatric Press, 2003.
Reviewed by Mario Testani, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

Summary

Depression can be caused by:

  • Brain chemicals
  • Life events and stress
  • How we see ourselves

There are many ideas about what causes sadness that is bad enough to be called a sickness. One idea is that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. Since we are made of chemicals, this might be true. There are many ways the chemicals can become uneven.

Another idea is that depression runs in families. Scientists have shown that you are more likely to get it if a parent, brother, or sister has had a serious depression. Some people are born with traits that cause brain cells under many kinds of stress to have problems. These kinds of problems can change the levels of vital brain compounds. Those compounds, which include norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine, are the main regulators of mood. 

Understanding brain chemicals

Brain chemicals can be affected by medicines when they are misused, and by street drugs. Some medications can lower brain chemicals that are vital in keeping the mood steady and good.

Brain compounds are also affected by diseases like hormone problems, cancer, infections, digestive/dietary disorders and serious sleep problems. Low thyroid, high blood sugar, lung cancer, viral infections like mono, certain food intolerances or vitamin deficiencies, and some sleep problems can make people feel unhappy and show signs of depression. Alcohol and other recreational drugs also change brain compounds. Even if alcohol can be helpful to health when used in appropriately small amounts, drinking too much over time can bring on low spirits..

The role of life events and stress

Chemical changes are not the whole story. If they were, it would be rare to meet an identical twin with depression whose brother or sister did not have it. Research on depression teaches us that it can also be caused by hard life events. When a loved one dies, for example, the grief can turn into serious sadness that lasts. When a relationship is lost, or a good job ends, depression sometimes arises.

Very bad long-term stress, like caring for a sick relative, can cause low spirits. Scary or cruel events during childhood can cause low spirits later on. Social isolation can also lead into or add to depression. All these kinds of events can be even worse on people whose brain chemistry is more at risk than that of others. Medications alone may not be enough to help a person who has been under great stress. Talking with a trained therapist can help a lot.

How we see ourselves

The ideas that we have about ourselves often shape our moods and actions. We all have ways we see ourselves and expect things to happen. For example, you may have had a painfully cruel childhood during which you were physically beaten. You may come to feel that you are deserving of criticism or punishment. This belief can bring on or worsen a low mood. Ideas about ourselves are very strong in this way.

When we think about all these kinds of causes at the same time, we are understanding depression as a combination of several things. They and other forms of treatment can affect biology and health problems. The psychological part of this term is about those ideas we form and sometimes cherish about ourselves. They can be harmful to the way we see ourselves. The social part is about long-lasting problems relating to others as a result of the sickness. At the same time, these viewpoints offer a way to learn the causes of depression and to think over many choices for care.

By James M. Ellison, MD, MPH
Source: Kendler KS. The dappled nature of causes of psychiatric illness: replacing the organic–functional/hardware–software dichotomy with empirically based pluralism. Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication Jan. 10, 2012; doi: 10.1038/mp.2011.182; Schatzberg AF, Nemeroff CB. The American Psychiatric Press Textbook of Psychopharmacology. Washington D.C., American Psychiatric Press, 2003.
Reviewed by Mario Testani, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

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