What Is the Chemistry Behind Depression?
Accepting how little we truly know about the chemistry of depression can help us maintain perspective and expectations for the medications used to treat depression.
For people who are trying to find the right treatment, understanding the complex chemistry can be reassuring when a particular drug doesn't work for them or if they need to try more than one antidepressant.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain. The nerve cells of the brain use neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. The messages they send are believed to play a role in mood regulation.
The three neurotransmitters implicated in depression are:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates positive feelings associated with reward or reinforcement that motivate us to continue with a task or activity. There is evidence that reduced dopamine levels can contribute to depression in some people.
Dopamine is believed to play an important role in a variety of conditions affecting the brain, including Parkinson's and schizophrenia.
Norepinephrine is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It plays a role in the "fight or flight response" along with adrenaline. It helps send messages from one nerve cell to the next.
Changes in norepinephrine levels do not affect mood in every person. Researchers now understand that having too little norepinephrine isn't the only chemical cause of depression.
Serotonin is considered to be the "feel good" chemical in the brain. In addition to helping regulate your mood, serotonin has a number of different jobs throughout the body from your gut to blood clotting to sexual function.
Research has indicated several potential causes for the low levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine:
While psychotherapy is helpful for some people with depression, if there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, it may not be enough to address their symptoms. Antidepressants combined with psychotherapy proves especially effective for addressing the symptoms.
While taking an antidepressant medication might help with the symptoms, it doesn't necessarily address the cause of the low levels. In this situation, therapy to improve stress management and reduce stress could potentially be helpful.
Psychotherapist, CBT fanatic, community organizer, active citizen
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