A New Look at Depression

For years, depression has been defined as a chemical imbalance in the brain.  There is a shortage of transmitter substances in the synapse, which causes our brain to slow down, almost as if the brain’s “batteries” are weak.  The latest medicines prescribed for depression work on building up serotonin in the synapses of the brain.  They are called Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s).  They work by blocking the receptors on the dendrite from absorbing the serotonin that is present, so the quantity of serotonin in the synapse will increase–sort of like having the batteries recharged.  They have provided an effective treatment for a lot of people.

Current research, however, is increasingly suggesting that most depression does not begin as a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects the brain’s ability to produce serotonin and/or dopamine in particular.  That problem is more a result of depression than a cause.  What they are finding is that most depression is caused by the effects of chronic stress.

As we age, two critical parts of our brain begin to shrink–our hippocampus and our prefrontal cortex.  As a result, we increasingly struggle with short-term memory problems, as well as have problems understanding and making decisions.  We also see the same “aging” effect on the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex happening in our brain when we experience chronic stress or post traumatic stress,  But researchers are also seeing the same effect on the brain from depression.

Research is showing that depression is the result of a build up of stress hormones, that is inhibiting the growth of these same two important parts of the brain. In addition, one of the symptoms of depression is an inability to get the right kind of sleep.  When we are dealing with the stress hormones in our system, sleep depravation adds to an already destructive cycle in the brain.  The levels of our stress hormones are designed to drop while we sleep.  When we don’t get enough sleep, the levels continue to build.  They just continue to pile up in our system, while all the time working against our physical and emotional health.

Question:  What do you think about stress being a cause of depression?

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7 Responses to A New Look at Depression

  1. Family_Man says:

    I agree entirely. I believe it begins a “cascade effect”, which results in depression. I would argue resolving depression often involves removing stress.

  2. Zulqarnain says:


  3. Wendy says:

    I agree. There are so many varying forms of stress that require a response from us. Yet so many of us are unable to process stress, so we store and stuff what we can’t wrap our minds & hearts around. Depression seems a reasonable result to our inability to understand and compute life’s burdens. Great point about sleep being so crucial.

  4. drstoop says:

    I believe that stress is not only a cause of depression, but also shortens life, and definitely effects the brains ability to think clearly, and/or remember well.


  5. Janis says:

    Dr. Stoop, I would like your opinion on magnetic therapy for depression. I know nothing about it; I just it recently mentioned and wondered about it as an alternative to medication.

  6. Bonnie says:

    I agree that stress contributes. In my personal experience I had to finally deal with some past experiences and the resulting PTSD in order to be able to cope with stress. Now that I have better coping skills for the stress I have been been able to counter depression and the outcomes in my life related to that depression. I have lost 215 pounds and am able to find more balance in life between work and play. God has been gracious in placing people in my life to help with the very difficult but rewarding journey.

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