Unresponsive To Antidepressants? Research Finds It May Have To Do With Your Inflammation Levels

mbg Editorial Assistant By Jamie Schneider
mbg Editorial Assistant
Jamie Schneider is the Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen with a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan. She's previously written for Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.

Image by Jamie Grill Atlas / Stocksy

We might already know that our inflammation levels can significantly affect our mood, but scientists have found that controlling inflammation may be the key to making antidepressants more effective for patients who were previously unresponsive to these medications. 

Currently, depression is commonly treated by medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). However, around one-third of people who suffer from depression are unaffected by SSRIs, which limits their options for treatment considerably. For a condition that affects 17.3 million adults in the United States alone, that's a huge number of people who experience depression with seemingly no way to lessen their pain. 

Enter the ECNP Congress in Copenhagen: This group of scientists presented findings from two studies and concluded that controlling inflammation might be the key to making antidepressants more effective. Antidepressants, according to the research, tend to increase neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to form new connections), and these scientists wanted to test whether inflammation had a role in this process.  

In a first study, scientists placed mice in a stressful environment for three weeks in order to cause inflammation, before feeding them Prozac, an SSRI antidepressant. This antidepressant caused the inflammation to decrease, which seems like a relatively normal outcome one might think of in terms of the effects of antidepressants. However, when these mice were exposed to a relaxing environment (leading to little inflammation in their brains and bodies), feeding them the Prozac actually resulted in higher inflammation levels. Through this preliminary study, the scientists were able to conclude that the neuroplasticity induced by SSRIs controlled inflammation levels. 

However, they mainly wanted to see if controlling inflammation levels themselves could have an effect on neuroplasticity. In a second study, the researchers treated the mice either with a drug that increases inflammation or with one that decreases inflammation (like ibuprofen). They then measured the mice's neuroplasticity markers and found that only controlled levels of inflammation increased their neuroplasticity. Meaning, both too high and too low levels of inflammation were reducing the effects of SSRI medications. 

While this research has only been performed on mice, the effects it could have on future treatment opportunities for humans are significant. We know that it's already so important to partake in an anti-inflammatory lifestyle to prevent things like autoimmune disease and weight gain, but controlling inflammation levels for better neuroplasticity in the brain is an entirely new and exciting reason to increase our intake of turmeric and green tea

And while you might think that brain inflammation and gut inflammation are unrelated, let me tell you that the two actually tend to go hand in hand. Our brain can become "inflamed" indirectly due to hormone imbalances and food intolerances, both of which can originate in the gut. Will Cole, M.D., even categorizes the gut as our "second brain," as the gut-brain axis lives at the center of the cytokine model of mental health.

The leader of the study, Igor Branchi, Ph.D., is also on board with this brain-gut relationship. He says in a news release: "If the results can be translated to humans, then controlling inflammation might lead to more effective use of antidepressants. This may be done by drugs, but we may also consider preventing high inflammation arising in the first place, which may lead us to look at other parameters which lead to the stress which causes this problem." These other parameters that lead to stress (and, as a result, inflammation) can be very dependent on prioritizing optimal gut health. 

However, it's important to keep in mind that low inflammation levels are just as harmful when it comes to responding to antidepressants. Remember that a healthy amount of inflammation is A-OK and is actually necessary for us to live: The inflammation that occurs in our bodies when we experience an immune response is vital for us to combat viruses—without it, we wouldn't be able to survive. 

Long story short, inflammation and neuroplasticity seem to be mutually regulating processes in the brain. Controlling inflammation levels has the potential to make antidepressants more effective for people who desperately need treatment but have been unresponsive to these drugs, which could quite literally change their lives for the better. Even if you aren't in the market for SSRIs, consider this another piece of scientific evidence that life is truly all about balance. 

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