by Dr. Gary Kaplan
If you’re one of the many Americans seeking relief from depression or anxiety, you’re no doubt aware just how elusive successful treatment can be. In fact, studies find that as many as 40% of people with depression fail to respond to treatment, while just over half report even a partial response to therapy.
These dismal figures raise an important question. Could it be that we’re thinking about — and therefore treating — these conditions in the wrong way?
A growing body of research now suggests that depression and anxiety might not be mental disorders in and of themselves, but rather symptoms of a physical inflammation stemming from the brain. This gives the medical community and those living with these debilitating conditions new hope. In thinking about depression and anxiety as symptoms, we’re afforded new insights into potential root causes, as well as alternative methods of treatment.
Here are eight often-overlooked causes of depression and anxiety that you should consider:
1. Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
About 1% of Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by the body’s negative reaction to gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. And gluten intolerance — also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity — is estimated to impact six times as many Americans.
While we don’t yet understand the mechanism of gluten intolerance in the body, the impact can be very similar to that seen with celiac disease. While intestinal complaints are most common, research is showing that people with these conditions may, in fact, present with anxiety and depression as the only symptoms.
You can test for celiac disease with a simple blood test. The only way to test for gluten intolerance is to go gluten-free for six weeks and watch for any improvement. (Before making any major dietary changes, make sure to consult your physician or a registered dietitian.)
2. Sleep apnea.
There are two types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common form and occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses, thereby blocking the airway during sleep. Central sleep apnea, although not as common, is a result of the brain forgetting to tell the body to breathe. A 2003 study found that nearly one in five people with depression also suffer from a breathing-related sleep disorder.
If you get plenty of sleep but never feel quite rested, or you find yourself often nodding off, you should talk with your physician and request an evaluation for sleep apnea.
3. Toxic mold exposure.
Exposure to certain indoor molds can result in a wide range of symptoms, including depression, ADHD, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, chronic sinus infections, and various pulmonary and neurologic issues. If you fear that you’ve been exposed to indoor molds, it’s critical that you speak with a physician who is familiar with mold toxicity disorder.
4. A thyroid disease.
Both an under-functioning thyroid (hypothyroidism) and an over-functioning thyroid (hyperthyroidism) can present as depression or anxiety — not to mention other symptoms like weight changes and exhaustion. If you suffer from depression or anxiety, you may wish to have your thyroid hormone levels checked in order to rule out any disorder.
It’s also possible that regular medications may be causing or worsening your depression or anxiety. Beta-blockers used to treat high blood pressure are known to cause depression, and acne-fighting Accutane, birth control pills, and even statins all list depression as a possible side effect.
If you take medication regularly, I recommend doing some research into the drugs, as well as talking with your doctor about the chances that your medication is bringing you down or making you anxious.
Several studies have demonstrated a link between coffee consumption and heightened depression and anxiety. While most people can tolerate one to two cups of coffee per day without issue, if you are prone to depression or anxiety, you may want to rethink your morning pick-me-up.
Try cutting out coffee altogether for at least two months, and observe whether or not your mental state changes as a result.
7. Unhealthy diet.
In 2011, a study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that individuals who consumed a diet high in baked goods and fast food had a 51% increased risk of developing depression.
On the other hand, eating a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils, walnuts and flaxseed) and antioxidants (colorful fruits, berries and greens including spinach, broccoli and collards) can help provide the brain with the nutrients it needs to repair free radical damage and optimize function.
8. Lyme disease.
Lyme and other tick-borne diseases are becoming increasingly prevalent. While the most common symptom is joint pain, these diseases can also be associated with depression and anxiety disorders.
This link between Lyme disease and neuropsychiatric disease was first established in 1994 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, and has been widely documented since, but the potential connection is frequently overlooked. If you are suffering from chronic pain and a mental disorder, this diagnosis should be considered.