Infection, autoimmune disease linked to depression

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Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems arise when something goes wrong with brain function. What causes that malfunction is an open question. In some people, a serious infection or autoimmune disease could be the trigger.

A report published online in JAMA Psychiatry explores this hypothesis. Researchers turned to comprehensive Danish databases that include all Danes born in the country, each identified by a unique registration number. One of the databases stores health-related information, including records of hospitalizations. Among Danes born between 1945 and 1995, almost 92,000 had a mood disorder. Of these, 36,000 had suffered a severe infection or developed an autoimmune disease (such as type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, lupus, and the like) at some point before being diagnosed with the mood disorder.

People who had been treated for a severe infection were 62% more likely to have developed a mood disorder than those who never had one. An autoimmune disease increased the risk by 45%. Multiple infections or the combination of severe infection and an autoimmune disease boosted the odds of developing depression, bipolar disorder, or another mood disorder even further.

The researchers estimated that in the Danish population, severe infection and autoimmune disease account for 12% of mood disorders.

“A link between infection and depression and mood disorders is intriguing,” says Dr. Michael C. Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a member of JAMA Psychiatry’s editorial board. “But it’s important to keep in mind that both infections and mood disorders are very common, making it difficult to tease out what causes what.”

He ticks off three possible explanations for the results:

  • Severe infection and autoimmune disease may cause mood disorders.
  • Mood disorders may create a susceptibility to infection or autoimmune disease.
  • Mood disorders, severe infection, and autoimmune disorders may share common triggers.

What’s the connection?

The Danish study isn’t the first to explore links between infection or autoimmune diseases and depression. Much of the evidence supports a connection.

Depression isn’t the only mental health issue that may be related to infections and autoimmune condition. Writing last year in the Harvard Health blog, Dr. Jeff Szymanski described how some children with strep throat suddenly develop obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s one manifestation of pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome. Quick treatment with antibiotics can reverse the problem.

How might an infection or autoimmune disorder lead to a mood or other mental health disorder? Infection causes localized and body-wide inflammation. Inflammation generates substances called cytokines that have been shown to change how brain cells communicate. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s defense system attacks healthy tissues rather than threatening invaders. It’s possible that in some cases the wayward immune reaction could target brain cells and other nerve cells throughout the body.

The connection between infection, autoimmune disease, inflammation, and mood disorders has prompted some researchers to wonder “Can we vaccinate against depression?” The short answer, at least for now, is “no.”

But there are things you can do. “Healthy living has all sorts of benefits,” says Dr. Miller. It can help you fight infection, reduce inflammation, ease stress, and make you feel better day to day, all of which work against the development of a mood disorder.”

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Proverbs 29:6 By transgression an evil man is ensnared, But the righteous sings and rejoices.

Lamentations 5:14 Elders are gone from the gate, Young men from their music.

Jeremiah 20:13 Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD! For He has delivered the soul of the needy one From the hand of evildoers.

Job 30:31 “Therefore my harp is turned to mourning, And my flute to the sound of those who weep.

Nehemiah 12:27 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites from all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem so that they might celebrate the dedication with gladness, with hymns of thanksgiving and with songs to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps and lyres.

Psalm 27:6 And now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me, And I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD.

Psalm 57:7 My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!
Psalm 81:1-2 Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, strike the timbrel, The sweet sounding lyre with the harp.

Psalm 87:7 Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you.”

Psalm 92:32 With the ten-stringed lute and with the harp, With resounding music upon the lyre.

Psalm 95:2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

Psalm 108:1 My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing, I will sing praises, even with my soul.

Psalm 144:9 I will sing a new song to You, O God; Upon a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to You,

Psalm 147:7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; Sing praises to our God on the lyre,

Psalm 149:3 Let them praise His name with dancing; Let them sing praises to Him with timbrel and lyre.

Psalm 150:1-6 Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His mighty expanse. Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness. Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre.

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