Updated: Jul 17
Despite what many people think about depression, depression is more than just being sad all the time. (See blog post: "What Is Depression? And Do I Have It?")
What many people don’t fully recognize is that depression can be both chemical and biological.
Depression Is A Medical Condition
Clinical depression is linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain, in which a chemical in the brain is not being produced enough for normalization (1).
To balance this chemical imbalance, most individuals who are diagnosed with depression are prescribed anti-depressants.
In many cases, the imbalance is due to a reduction of a particular neurotransmitter in the brain. A neurotransmitter, being a chemical in the brain, sends chemical messages from one nerve cell to the next. When the messages aren’t being delivered effectively symptoms of depression can arise. (2)
Thus, neurotransmitter production is important in that any chemical imbalance, due to a decrease in production, can result in multiple symptoms of depression.
In particular, most people who are depressed show a reduction in the following neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine.
Do Hormonal Imbalances Cause Depression?
Science has suggested that a chemical imbalance in the brain doesn’t necessarily lead to depression. Rather, it is a contributor to several symptoms of depression. (3)
3 Major Neurotransmitters Involved In Depression
As mentioned before, depression has been linked to chemical imbalances in the brain.
But what chemicals are specifically associated with depression?
Serotonin — a neurotransmitter that is involved in controlling many bodily functions such as sleep, aggression, eating, sexual behavior, and mood (4). Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) is a kind of antidepressant used to treat someone with a serotonin imbalance. You can read more about it here.
Norepinephrine — a neurotransmitter that helps our bodies recognize and react to stressful situations. Thus, those who show a decreased production of norepinephrine have difficulty dealing with stress. (5)
Dopamine — a neurotransmitter involved in controlling one’s desire to seek rewards and the ability to obtain a sense of pleasure. Those who show a decreased production of this neurotransmitter show a low interest in activities compared to before they were depressed. (6)
These are the three major chemical neurotransmitters that are commonly associated with depression. Other neurotransmitters involved include acetylcholine, glutamate, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
As mentioned above, a decreased production of certain neurotransmitters is highly linked to depression.
This is when anti-depressants are prescribed.
Anti-depressants are prescribed to counter an individual’s inability to produce enough of a particular neurotransmitter.
Anti-Depressants Aren’t Always The Solution
Anti-depressed don’t work all the time. In fact, they work on only 1/3 of the population that takes them. They work partially in another 1/3 and for the other third…anti-depressants don’t work at all. (7)
In addition, many people who take anti-depressants choose to stop taking them due to the side effects they produce. Sometimes the side effects can be much worse than their initial depressive symptoms.
Also, it is important to discuss with your doctor of any plans to get off antidepressants as there may be consequences. Please read "Don't Stop Taking Your Antidepressants: At Least, Not Yet" to learn more.
Anti-depressants are not the ultimate solution to resolve depression. Rather, it is a way to manage it chemically.
Everyone is different and anti-depressants are not one-size-fits-all. Sometimes depression doesn’t necessarily need to be treated medically but rather a combination of treatment for depression can include therapy, management, and medication (if necessary).