Current research findings show that many people affected by depression also have illnesses associated with the presence of inflammation somewhere in the body. However, in most cases, exploration of this topic has centered on men, not women. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles explored the potential role of inflammation in women affected by depression. These researchers concluded that body inflammation is probably at least partially responsible for women’s susceptibility to depression symptoms.
Depression and Women
Women in the U.S. have a lifetime depression rate of roughly 20 percent. Overall, the average woman is roughly 70 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of major depression or another depressive illness than the average man. Some of this disparity may be the result of women’s general willingness to admit feeling depressed, as well as gender-related bias in the chances that a doctor will make an official depression finding. However, women also have unique physical risks for depression. For example, during monthly menstruation, some women develop unusually severe forms of the hormone-related mood fluctuations commonly associated with premenstrual syndrome or PMS. The American Psychiatric Association defines this gender-specific problem as premenstrual dysphoric disorder or PMDD. Hormone-based mood changes also account for women’s increased risks for depression during pregnancy and in the postpartum period that follows pregnancy. A form of major depression called postpartum depression occurs in women who have recently given birth.
Social factors also play a role in women’s increased depression risks. Examples of these factors include the relative likelihood that women will live in poverty or otherwise lack the economic means to support mental health and well-being, the double whammy of work- and home-related stress that falls disproportionately on women, and women’s relatively elevated level of exposure to physical abuse and sexual abuse. Additional mental health problems often found in women affected by depression include bulimia and other eating disorders, substance use disorder and anxiety disorders.
Inflammation and Depression
Inflammation is a natural response to cell and tissue injury that, in normal circumstances, allows the human immune system to limit the spread of damage to other parts of the body. Unfortunately, ongoing inflammation can seriously degrade the immune system’s function and increase the odds that an affected person will experience some related form of significant illness. Specific physical illnesses associated with uncontrolled inflammation include heart disease, blood vessel disease, cancer, diabetes and a range of ailments known as autoimmune diseases. All of the conditions named here are linked to a significant increase in the odds of developing diagnosable depression symptoms.
Contribution to Women’s Depression
In the study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, the UCLA researchers used a project involving 115 generally healthy adults to help determine how much of a role inflammation plays in the onset of depression in women. They undertook this project, in part, to offset the relative lack of knowledge regarding the mental/emotional effects of inflammation inside women’s bodies. Sixty-nine of the 115 study participants were women. Half of the men and women enrolled in the project received a shot of toxic bacteria-based material, while the other half received a seemingly identical shot that contained a harmless placebo. After administering the shots, the researchers looked for inflammation-related changes in the immune function of both the men and women. They also looked for signs of an increase in depressed mental states, as well as signs of a diminished sense of social connection with others.
The researchers concluded that, among both men and women, the shot of toxic bacteria triggered immune system-related inflammation, as well as an increase in feelings of depression and a diminished sense of social connectedness. When they compared the findings between genders, they concluded that the women experienced significantly greater indications of depression and diminished social capacity than their male counterparts. In addition, the researchers specifically linked the presence of two inflammation-related chemicals to a loss of social connection among the women.
Overall, the study’s authors believe their findings demonstrate the importance of inflammation as a depression trigger in women. They also believe that women’s relatively extreme responses to inflammation may help explain the known gender-based disparity in depression risks.