- New evidence shows that anti-inflammatory therapies including omega-3 fatty acids, aspirin, and arthritis medication can be effective in helping treat major depression.
- The research adds to a growing body of evidence that inflammation is linked not only to physical illness but also mental illness.
- However, anti-inflammatories are not a substitute for traditional mental health treatments, and may in fact be most effective for fighting depression when combined with pharmaceutical medications.
Major depressive disorder is a growing global problem. Surveys have shown cases of depression have increased by as much as 30% in the past few years, particularly among young people.
And it can be life-threatening: The number of suicides has skyrocketed among 10- to 24-year-old Americans, making it the second leading cause of death in that age group after accidents.
But new research suggests there may be a solution in an unlikely place, anti-inflammatory treatments, which include common drugs like arthritis medication and aspirin, statins (used to treat cholesterol), and omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like fish, nuts, and seeds.
To come to their conclusion, researchers from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, reviewed 30 previous studies with a total of 1,610 participants. They found a majority of the studies showed anti-inflammatories were linked to a significant reduction in depression symptoms compared to placebos.
Past research has shown that inflammation, a defense mechanism in which the body releases special proteins to fight off threats like infection, bacteria, and allergens, is linked to health conditions ranging from allergies to certain cancers. Anti-inflammatory compounds, then, are believed to help protect the body against its own overeager immune system.
But this new study, published October 28 in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, suggests inflammation also plays a role in emotional function and mental health, and anti-inflammatory compounds can work in treating those ills too.
Anti-inflammation treatment isn’t a replacement for medication
Most significantly, researchers found that anti-inflammatories were safe to use as a treatment for depression. Among all the participants, only one experienced an adverse reaction to the anti-inflammatory treatment, due to an allergy.
Traditional antidepressant medications, which work by regulating specific neurotransmitters in the brain, can have serious side effects, including insomnia, metabolic syndrome, nausea, anxiety, fatigue or drowsiness, and even an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
They can also be be difficult to prescribe effectively, since the drugs may have drastically different effects from person to person.
Despite anti-inflammatories’ promise, they’re by no means a replacement for antidepressant medication. In fact, some studies showed that anti-inflammatories worked best for depression symptoms in conjunction with traditional antidepressants including sertraline (Zoloft) and fluoxetine (Prozac).
Patients treated with statins or omega-3 fatty acids supplements in additional to their regular medication showed a better reduction of depression compared with medication and a placebo, studies showed.
Finally, researchers found that while anti-inflammatories did seem to reduce symptoms, they didn’t significantly improve quality of life, according to patients’ reports, an important measure for mental health treatment. This may be partly because the studies involve were short, between six and 12 weeks, so further research is needed to understand how inflammation and depression are related in the long term.
However, the results are promising for previous research that reducing inflammation, including through a balanced diet, can help mitigate symptoms of depression.