Up until recently, science thought that depression was a result of chemical imbalance in the brain. Most scientists believed in this, and the theory has been supported by psychiatrists and drug companies as well, just to keep the wheels turning. However, the theory has recently been discredited.
The theory emerged in the 60s after some doctors had success treating depression with pills that altered brain chemicals. Although the findings were labeled inconclusive, the medical community quickly accepted the theory and it has stayed active until now.
According to Dr. Steve Hyman from the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, the theory gave new psychiatrists an attempt to create a mental health system that’s a mirror to other diagnostic models. It also gave scientists a chance at a biological cause for depression and made the disease more understandable to patients.
Prozac, Zoloft and other drugs brought the chemical imbalance theory to the mainstream
In the late 80s, antidepressants such as Zoloft appeared on the market and were instantly a game-changer. The chemical imbalance theory was quickly brought to the mainstream so Big Pharma can sell their drugs. Prozac and Zoloft had fewer side-effects than previous antidepressants and were working on the neurotransmitter known as serotonin.
Of course, there was not a lot of evidence to support the theory, but the drug’s creator, Eli Lilly, was not interested in other theories. Many psychiatrists supported her claims, but even with Prozac flooding the market, depression was still poorly treated at the time.
The drug worked by improving the production of serotonin and giving your brain more of it, which can improve your mood. However, the theory has been disproven over and over again. The Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology says that antidepressants are aimed at correcting a chemical imbalance, and their efficiency is the main reason behind the chemical imbalance theory. However, unpublished data hidden by Big Pharma has shown that it’s all about a placebo effect, not the drug’s effects itself. Due to this, the serotonin theory may have been wrong all along.
Harvard University says that depression is more complex than a simple chemical imbalance
Chemical imbalance might be one of the reasons for depression, but it can’t be considered the only one. Stress can also cause changes in the brain and even reduce the size of the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and learning.
Even a study from Harvard University said that it’s wrong to focus on chemical imbalance only in cases of depression, as there are many factors behind it, including faulty mood regulation, genetics, stress, medical problems and some medications as well.
Another theory points out that stress may be the biggest risk factor for depression as it stops the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, so in order to treat the disease, we need to boost neurogenesis and create new neurons in the brain. This is exactly why people on antidepressants rarely experience improvements for a few weeks. If the drug improved the neurotransmitters, the effects would be immediate.
The chemical imbalance theory can worsen outcomes
Besides the implications and long-term effects of antidepressants, the theory is also dangerous as it worsens the patient’s outcome. When a patient believes his depression is a result of chemical imbalance, they think that pills can resolve it. They become less confident that there’s another way of improving their mood, and the treatment doesn’t lessen the self-stigma at all. These patients don’t believe that psychotherapy can help, and stick to the pills instead.
This was confirmed in a 2014 study. The depressive patients in the study had no reduction in their symptoms and were blaming themselves still even after a long time on the pills. This shows that blaming chemical imbalance for depression is dangerous and can worsen the outcome for the patient.
Antidepressants are no better than placebos
About 7% of the American population suffered from depression in the previous year, and about 350 million people around the world are suffering from depression right now. Only a third of the patients get treated, with the other two thirds left on their own with low quality of life.
The antidepressants are getting increasingly more ineffective, which means that even the treated patients are left suffering. According to studies, antidepressants are only as effective as placebos.
Irving Kirsch from Harvard University recently conducted a meta-analysis of antidepressants and placebos, and found exactly no difference at all. Furthermore, antidepressants raise the risk of type 2 diabetes even after adjusting other factors, and have been associated with thicker arteries and a higher risk of cardiovascular problems.
Another study which involved 513 participants showed that antidepressants can make the carotid intima artery thicker and raise the risk of stroke and heart attack. The drugs are linked to dementia as well, so it’s fair to say they’re pretty dangerous.
Even worse, antidepressants can deplete your body of various nutrients including vitamin B12 and coenzyme Q10 which are important for proper mitochondrial function. They can also deplete folate and iodine in the body, which will result in greater risk of relapse.
Alternative depression treatments
There are many alternative depression treatments which can treat the underlying cause and defeat the disease. Experts suggest raising your vitamin B and D, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acid levels, as well as regular exercise and reducing your sugar intake. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help as well, as can light therapy which has provided great results in the treatment of moderate and heavy depression.