Inflammation: A Silent Cause of Depression?



Americans are struggling with depression in greater numbers than ever before—roughly one in three of U.S. adults are experiencing depressive symptoms, up nearly three-fold since before the pandemic. If you have been seeking treatment for depression unsuccessfully, it may be time to look at a surprising underlying cause: inflammation.



If you have been seeking treatment for depression unsuccessfully, it may be time to look at a surprising underlying cause: inflammation. Click To Tweet

Most people are aware that chronic inflammation has been linked to a host of serious physical ailments such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, pain syndromes, and gastrointestinal disorders. However, research is revealing that inflammation might be a contributing factor in a number of mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.

The word inflammation comes from the Latin word inflammare, which means “to set on fire.” When inflammation is no longer a healthy immune response to an injury or foreign invaders, such as a splinter, virus, or bacterial infection, but instead becomes chronic, it’s like having a steady low-level fire throughout your body causing damage to organs and tissue—and that includes your brain.

In addition to depression, chronic inflammation has been shown to be associated with a wide range of neurological and psychiatric illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, personality disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.


Inflammation plays a critical role in your immune system. When your body detects an injury or invading microbe, your immune system sends out its “first responders” or inflammatory cells and cytokines (substances that stimulate more inflammatory cells). This inflammatory response traps microbial invaders and other offending agents or starts healing injured tissue. Usually, after a few hours or a few days, the immune response downshifts back to neutral, and the inflammation subsides.

In some people, however, the inflammatory response doesn’t turn off—or it mistakes healthy tissue for a foreign invader and begins attacking it (an autoimmune response). This can lead to chronic inflammation.

There are a host of diet and lifestyle factors that can stoke the flames of inflammation. For example, a pro-inflammatory diet with too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, too much omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3s, alcohol consumption, artificial sweeteners, fried foods, and chemicals can lead to chronic inflammation. Also, low vitamin D, exposure to environmental toxins, sleeplessness, chronic stress, childhood trauma, obesity, gum disease, prediabetes and diabetes, too much strenuous exercise, and smoking are some additional contributing factors.


The link between systemic inflammation and depression is not exactly new. For example, it has been known for quite some time that depression is a side effect of drugs that purposefully increase inflammation, such as vaccinations or interferon that is used to treat hepatitis or certain types of cancer.

Conversely, some anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or aspirin, and nutraceuticals, such as omega-3 fatty acids and curcumin, have been found to decrease depression in people who have evidence of persistent inflammation.

That said, in recent years, compelling research is providing more insight into how inflammation interacts with the brain, affecting mood.

Lack of motivation and the inability to feel pleasure often go hand and hand with depression. Those with major depressive disorder may find it hard to feel motivated to do anything at all. Because biomarkers of inflammation are reliably elevated in depressed patients, one study administered inflammatory stimuli in healthy subjects to see how it affected neural activity and dopamine release in the reward-related regions of the brain. The results showed reduced neural activity (low motivation) is associated with inflammatory biomarkers.

Similarly, another study showed an association between inflammation and the activation of parts of the brain that feel social rejection, fear, and threats.

One review study titled “Inflamed Moods: A Review of the Interactions Between Inflammation and Mood Disorders” found that pro-inflammatory cytokines had direct effects on levels of important mood neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (typical in major depressive disorder), central nervous system function, impaired neuroplasticity, as well as structural and functional brain changes. Yet, more hopefully, the same review study noted that anti-inflammatory supplements (curcumin and omega-3 fatty acids) showed improved outcomes in mood disorder patients when used as an adjunct to conventional therapy, and it recommended further research.


For many people who are experiencing depression, this link between inflammation and depression offers hope. Taking steps to ensure your body’s inflammation levels are in a healthy range could potentially help your mood.  Here are 6 steps you can begin taking today.

1. Take a quality omega-3 supplement.

You can ask to get your omega-3 fatty acid levels checked at your next doctor’s visit with a simple blood test. Most people are deficient. A quality fish oil supplement will usually contain high levels of EPA and DHA. Studies show that having low levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in your bloodstream is associated with inflammation. Research additionally shows that low levels of EPA and DHA are also linked to depression.

2. Improve your gut health.

Did you know that your gastrointestinal tract is lined with about 100 million neurons? It is, and they are in constant communication with your brain. It’s important to limit foods that disrupt your microbiome and cause inflammation as a result. Abstain from the inflammatory foods mentioned above and eat more fermented foods, which help to improve gut health and quell inflammation, as well as prebiotic foods (the foods that feed healthy gut microflora) such as garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, bananas, and barley. Enjoy a diet filled with colorful organic fresh fruits (especially berries) and vegetables, lean antibiotic-free, grass-fed meats, healthy fats (from fish, avocado, nuts, and seeds), and low-glycemic carbs, such as sweet potatoes, legumes, and quinoa.

3. Reduce stress with relaxation.

Chronic stress causes inflammation in the body. Exercise, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, hypnosis, and meditation have all been shown to reduce stress levels. Find something you enjoy and will do regularly to help you relax.

4. Practice good dental hygiene.

Surprisingly, gum or periodontal disease, an inflammatory condition, is linked to depression, according to research. Be sure you are brushing twice a day, flossing, and seeing the dentist for cleanings twice a year.

5. Get quality sleep.

Insomnia is linked to higher inflammation levels. Do everything you can to ensure you get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Turn digital devices off an hour before bedtime, limit caffeine and alcohol intake (which can disrupt sleep), and have a calming routine before bed.

6. Reduce exposure to environmental toxins.

Environmental toxins are linked to inflammation. Avoid artificial sweeteners, dyes, and produce grown with pesticides. Use household cleaners that have fewer chemicals. Switch to personal care products without harsh chemicals, and that includes makeup!

Taking even a few of these steps can go a long way in calming the low-burning flame of inflammation, helping you to feel better mentally and emotionally.

Depression and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Currently dealing with chronic pain from 2 back surgeries and stress with caring for my husband with dementia/alzheimers and bipolar. I am currently using your vits that you recommend and eating healthy, gluten free, but can’t seemed to get a handle on the cycle of pain & stress. Just ordered your Conquering Chronic Pain – Through Hypnosis [MP3] Any other suggestions.

    Comment by Lezlie Lang — April 7, 2022 @ 12:50 PM

  2. I wish that I could afford your Spect services…. I will be 84 in 2
    weeks and have limited income, but I am sure that your
    programs would make a big difference in my life!

    Comment by Phyllis J Fitzgerald — April 8, 2022 @ 7:55 AM

  3. Leslie- have you and your husband ever been exposed to toxic mold? It’s not everyone’s issue, but more prevalent than society gives credit for. Check out this site for further info and check out CIRS to see if anything there sounds applicable. It may not pertain to your husband, but ruling things out is part of the process too. Also consider Dale Bredesen book or YouTube videos on the end of Alzheimer’s. Insightful.

    Comment by KJ — April 8, 2022 @ 8:27 AM

  4. I take cold showers against inflammation as well as all the things you suggested in your email

    Comment by Raven — April 8, 2022 @ 10:20 AM

  5. I have macular degeneration at age 55, I have a life history of OCD, anxiety and chronic depression. Non stop trauma since I was born.

    Comment by Eve Kurpiers — April 8, 2022 @ 1:06 PM

  6. Phyllis, I’m 72 I hear you money money money I would love to be able to get brain scan for myself and or my son who is dealing with fentanyl and crystal meth. That’s the Band-Aid to cover up the issues but what’s the issue? That’s my question. I pray not sure if there’s a God but I pray only hope 4 a happy Sun. His older brother passed away 3 years ago alcohol. Stress is killing me answer aching bones are taking everything. Homeless essentially when I had a place I was eating juicing and doing a good job but difficult when you’re bouncing around from Motel to vehicle to wherever. Tired professional but broke

    Comment by James Rowe — April 8, 2022 @ 2:14 PM

  7. For brain we want more DHA for joints epa
    It should be at least 10/1 DHA/ epa

    Comment by Mitchell — April 9, 2022 @ 6:06 AM

  8. I’ve lived with fibromyalgia for more than 45 years; depression and anxiety have been part of this.

    Comment by Diane Shepherd — April 9, 2022 @ 7:44 AM

  9. James, I am so sorry to read of your difficult situation and I really feel for you. I am radiating loving energy to you and your son right now (and to Phyllis). I have recently learnt, from Marie Manuchehri, to say What if statements. They really work. How about you say, over and over, the following … What if I create abundance in all areas of my life. What if my life is wonderful. What if I enjoy great health … What if statements are a lot of fun, only limited by your imagination and are free. I have found that they really work and I am aware that many others find the same. You could possibly Google Marie … she has a radio show and podcasts. May this comment help to turn your fortunes around.

    Comment by Sherida Carrick — April 10, 2022 @ 12:36 AM

  10. I wish the medicaid could cover the brain scan, for my 12 years old daughter. Besides that we live in Houston TX, no way to get there. Thanks for all the important information about this.

    Comment by Mary — April 13, 2022 @ 4:05 AM

  11. Thank you so very much for the informative reads, I have recently bought myself 2 of Dr Amen’s books. I am learning so much, and sharing with everyone I pray to be able to set up this clinic in my country one day.
    Much love and respect from the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

    Comment by Palesa — April 19, 2022 @ 6:42 AM

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