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BLOG: October 2007

Depression and work

Can your workplace give you depression? A Forbes.com article goes over a number of ways that office people can get seek while working, from exposure to physical discomfort to poor air quality. Another unhealthy "ingredient", constant stress, can also cause depression.

Of course, it is not only office workers that can be exposed to it, and it is not limited only to the working environment. Also, work depression - or just any depression - can be caused by other factors as well. In other words, while relieving stress is always good, it may not help you get rid of depression. So, if you have depression symptoms, here's what you should consider.

Depression is very simple to define on the physiological level: your brain simply lacks the happy hormones that create your feeling of wellbeing and satisfaction. Without them, you just don't feel that life is good; worse yet, you may not care. But it gets more complicated when it comes to figuring out why you are lacking these hormones. Let's glimpse over the possible causes in general, and those work related in particular.

The official criterion for diagnosing depression is having five or more of these nine symptoms:

depressed mood for at least 2 weeks
loss of interest and pleasure in daily activities
change in body weight
change in sleep patterns
physical agitation or passivity
feeling of guilt or worthlessness
impaired concentration, indecisiveness
suicidal thoughts

I would assume that you should already consider depression with the first two symptoms alone; the rest of three (or more) only make depression diagnosis more likely.

So, what is it that links stress and depression? For one, your body has to produce stress hormones, and then to metabolize and dispose of them (otherwise, we'd always stay stressed out, or sad, or happy, etc.). This requires both, energy and nutrients, which the body has only in limited quantities - in some people more limited than in others. Many of the nutrients used to produce and metabolize stress hormones are also needed for the production of happy hormones. In other words, stress and worry drain those same resources that the brain needs to create feelings of satisfaction, joy and happiness. One of self-perpetuating mechanisms of habitual stress is in causing nutritional deficiencies that prevent efficient metabolism (removal) of stress hormones.

Moreover, stress hormones override your regular, healthy body function mode, suppressing some vital functions like metabolism and immune response, while putting additional burden on others, like adrenal and cardiovascular function. By that, the state of stress restricts supply while at the same time maintaining or heightening demand. It is a part of proven survival mechanism, but the body only can take so much of this priorities switch before it begins to suffer health consequences.

The inevitable result of prolonged stress is suboptimal body function, lower energy and loss of overall feeling of wellbeing. Often times, this makes you crave quick-energy (junk) foods laden with sugar, stimulants like coffee, or medications - all of which only make things worse.

Excessive sugar can affect pancreatic function, leading into all too common - although often unrecognized - precursor of depression, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). It also robs the body of nutrients, in particular B-vitamins needed by the brain, and chromium, needed to control sugar metabolism (which pretty much places you in a vicious circle). Longer-term, elevated glucose level due to sugar overconsumption may cause the switch to a cellular metabolic mode less efficient at protecting and preserving body cells; the result is significantly shortened lifespan.

Caffeine from coffee - but also from teas, sodas and medications - belongs to bio-active amines, naturally occurring substances chemically similar to neurotransmitters. This enables it to cling to the same cell receptors in the brain, simulating the effect of certain brain-produced neurotransmitters. This suppresses body's own happy hormones production, making you caffeine-dependent and throwing you into the vicious circle of ups and downs. Indirectly, it can contribute do creation of depressive mental states by causing migraine headaches, anxiety states, including panic attacks, and insomnia. The extent of these - and other - caffeine effects depend on the amount consumed and individual sensitivities.

By now, you can see that the main causes of depression lie either in body's own inability to produce happy hormones, or in some external factors interfering with their production and use by the brain. While prolonged stress is always contributing to it, it doesn't have to be the main factor. The inability to efficiently produce, transport or utilize happy hormones can be impaired by deficiencies or imbalances in any of a number of nutrients, in particular:

B-complex vitamins

minerals like magnesium, copper, zinc, chromium, manganese, lithium, cesium and iron (in excess, as copper antagonist)

amino acids, especially tryptophan (from which the body makes neurotransmitter serotonin), tyrosine, phenylalanine, glutamine and taurine; also, carnitine, which body makes from methionine and lysine, and which is needed to carry essential fatty acids to the neural cells' mitochondria (note that intake-based amino acid deficiencies are rare; they most often result from malabsorption, or deficiencies in nutrients needed to metabolize them)

essential fatty acids, which are both, main building blocks of neural membranes, enabling proper function of their neurotransmitter receptors, and major energy source for the neural cells' power-plants, mitochondria, and

choline, necessary for the production of phosphatidyl choline, needed for membrane fluidity and, even more importantly, for production of the very basic neurotransmitter, acetylcholine

The reason you may be deficient in any of these nutrients can be insufficient dietary intake, compromised absorption, or their excessive use by the body. For instance, if your toxic exposure is high, your body will use more choline - which is likely to be already low - to produce glycine for detox functions, going as far as taking phosphatidyl choline from your brain's rationing for that purpose. Of course, this will likely leave you in short supply of acetylcholine, but in its hard-learned wisdom the body chooses the more important function - protection over feelings and neural communication in general - when setting its priorities.

This is only one out of many examples of how health factors are inter-connected and mutually dependant.

Among the factors interfering with brain's function in a manner that can result in depression are food, mold and chemical sensitivities. They don't necessarily affect the brain, but when they do, they cause allergic reaction and inflammation, with one of the possible consequences being interference with the happy hormones function.

Among foods, the top offenders are sugar, gluten and milk/dairy. Chemical sensitivities affecting the brain most often come from food additives, pesticides (which also can damage pancreas causing depression-inducing hypoglycemia, or interfere with acetylcholine function), natural gas (beware of leaking gas stoves and heaters), volatile organic compounds (from new carpeting, furniture, rubber and plastic) and toxic metals.

Some prescription drugs (including those very anti-depressant medication you'll likely be prescribed if you seek medical help) also can directly interfere with your neural functions. Cholesterol-lowering drugs like statins do it by obstructing production of cholesterol, needed for proper function of cellular membranes, which contain neurotransmitter receptors (this is why pantethine, a form of pantothenic acid, or B5 vitamin, which naturally enhances fat metabolism, can help with both, correcting cholesterol levels and depression). Any drug taken regularly can affect neural functions (among others) by draining nutrients the body uses to have it detoxified.

And then, there are factors like hypoglycemia/depression resulting from thyroid gland dysfunction or pancreas dysfunction (both affected either by nutritional deficiencies/excesses or chemical sensitivity), low testosterone in males and low testosterone, estrogen or progesterone in woman, low DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone, one of adrenal hormones), or leaky gut (often accompanied with Candida yeast overgrowth), precipitating food and chemical sensitivities by compromising your gut-blood and blood-brain barrier.

It would take an entire book just to describe the very basics of these and other interactions possibly leading to depression. Luckily, such book has been written (Depression cured at last!, Sherry Rogers, M.D.), including diagnostic and drug-free treatment options.

As you can see, tracking down the cause of your work depression is quite a handful: it includes much more than just managing workplace stress. More often than not, depression involves more than a single factor. Knowing what are the most likely causes in your case can help a lot in pinpointing the problem, and having it corrected.

One of these factors that shouldn't be neglected is your lifestyle and personality. Are you - and why - workaholic, excessive eater, impulsive buyer, love-starved, pleaser, perfectionist, repressive, asocial, alcoholic or drug-user, abusive, criminal, in short: unhappy, with suppressed, hidden needs and/or conflicts?

While such mental states are often aggravated by nutritional factors and food/chemical sensitivities, and only made worse by unhealthy lifestyle that these personality traps are likely to draw you into, your depression may be originating from the constant stress resulting from your unfavorable perception of yourself and people around you.

It will often require to stop running, face your demons and chase them away to win your happiness.