Although it seems that depression is a distinctly emotional condition that only alters the mood and feelings, those who suffer from it can also suffer physical and chemical changes in the brain that can affect not only mental health but the rest of the body.
This is a more generalized global problem than what is believed. According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people suffer from depression in the world. An average of 800 thousand people commits suicide each year due to depression. This is also the main cause of death among young people between 15 and 29 years old.
Depression is not a temporary emotional change. The alterations that it produces in the brain make it difficult to control in those who suffer it. For that reason, it is important to recognize it and treat it with a specialist, instead of thinking that it is a bad mood that will disappear on its own.
What happens in the brain when we get depressed?
Three parts of the brain are directly affected by depression: the hippocampus, the cerebral amygdala, and the pre-frontal cortex. In the next space, we review them in detail.
1. Shrinkage of the hippocampus
The hippocampus is located in the central area of the brain. He is in charge of storing the memory and regulating the production of cortisol, known as the stress hormone and happiness.
When we suffer from physical or mental stress, including depression stress, the body releases cortisol to try to alleviate the effects of stress. However, when cortisol levels are very high, a chemical imbalance occurs, the production of neurons decreases and the hippocampus shrinks.
2. Shrinkage of the pre-frontal cortex
Located in the anterior part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for regulating emotions and creating memories. The pre-frontal cortex can also shrink due to excess cortisol. It is believed that a lack of empathy for postpartum depression is caused by this cause.
3. Inflammation of the cerebral amygdala
The cerebral amygdala is located in the temporal lobe, the lower central part of the brain. Its function is to regulate emotions such as pleasure, happiness or fear, among others.
Excess cortisol also affects it by inflaming it and making it more active, which causes difficulty sleeping and abnormal behavior patterns. In addition, being more active causes other parts of the body to release more hormones than normal and cause other health complications.
4. Lack of oxygenation
In addition to the direct alterations that depression produces in the brain, other changes affect brain function indirectly. Studies show that the body is oxygenated less in periods of depression. It is not known if it is due to changes in breathing patterns or another reason.
The cells of the body, in general, are affected by the reduction of oxygen. In particular, brain cells can suffer damage or die.
What effects do these changes have on health?
These alterations of the brain do not occur immediately but are the product of the continued action of depression. Studies suggest that the reduction of the hypothalamus and the pre-frontal cortex takes 8 to 10 months to manifest.
Dr. Thomas Frodl, a researcher at the Magdeburg hospital in Germany, followed up on patients with depression for three years to see that physical changes in the brain are increasing over time.
Some of the consequences that the physical and chemical changes that depression produces in the brain are the following
- Memory loss
- Decreased neurotransmitter function
- Stagnation of brain development
- Decreased learning capacity
- Cognitive problems
- Concentration problems
- Changes in mood
- Lack of empathy towards others
- Difficulty to sleep
How to treat the effects of depression in the brain?
Scientific studies suggest that the chemical imbalance produced by excess cortisol and other chemicals in the body is the main cause of emotional disturbances and physical changes in the brain.
For this reason, treatments are aimed at regulating the production of hormones such as cortisol and serotonin, either with inhibitory drugs or with therapy.
Research shows that psychotherapy helps to modify the structure of the brain and to fight the symptoms of depression. That is why it is necessary to seek professional help when you suspect that you suffer from depression.
There are also things a person with depression can do on their own to help improve their brain function and fight depression.
- Controlling stress
- Eat healthily
- Sleep well
- Avoid alcohol and drugs
In summary, depression is a disorder that goes beyond changes in mood. Although the naked eye cannot be seen, the brain undergoes physical changes that can interfere with the general well-being.