The COVID-19 pandemic has led to soaring rates of depression in the US. A study in JAMA Network Open found that the number of people reporting depressive symptoms has tripled compared with pre-pandemic levels, with more than 25% of our population now affected. Indeed depression has become a second pandemic.
Depression is more than being unhappy. Its symptoms include a hopeless outlook and thoughts of suicide; feelings of worthlessness and guilt; a loss of interest in life and in things that used to provide pleasure and comfort; trouble concentrating, deciding and remembering; increased fatigue and sleep problems; anxiety and irritability; unwanted gain or loss of weight; uncontrollable, roller-coaster emotions; and sometimes unexplained physical pain. It often leads to substance abuse, which, although a temporary escape, makes the depression worse.
Although the researchers in the above study found increased stress leading to depression at all income levels and in all demographics, people with low incomes and little in the way of savings have been hardest hit, as well as essential workers in high-risk situations. (In a study of Chinese front-line COVID health care workers, for example, more than half reported having symptoms of depression.)
The study’s lead author, Catherine Ettman, has urged policymakers to take steps to reduce the impact of COVID-19 stressors on depression among those suffering the most. Such steps would include “eviction moratoria, providing universal health insurance that is not tied to employment . . . and helping people return to work safely.” She has also argued for fair wages that will enable families not only to live on their incomes but also to save money for the future.
It is heart-wrenching to read that more than a quarter of our population is experiencing symptoms of depression. For those of us who’ve been spared the worst of this pandemic, there may be opportunities to reach out to others who haven’t been so lucky and offer help.
It is also a sobering reminder to double-down on our own pro-active self-care.
Like any other disease, depression is caused by nutrient deficiencies, toxins, poor diets, unhealthy lifestyles and harmful medications, as well as stress. Although severe stress often precipitates depression, we can cope with stress much better and decrease the risk of it leading to depression if we’re eating well, exercising regularly, and getting appropriate sleep and “time out” to recharge.
A healthy, depression-resistant brain requires enough dietary protein, all the vitamins and minerals in the right quantities, and ample omega-three fatty acids (from flaxseed, fish and supplements).
A healthy gut is also critical. Overgrowth of bad bacteria in the colon is a direct cause of depression. Among other things, these bacteria produce toxic substances that affect the brain, causing the kind of brain inflammation and degeneration that lead to depression and other neurological disease.
Unfortunately stress CAUSES the gut to become unhealthy, increasing the bad bugs and decreasing the good. In any ongoing stressful situation, especially if you start to feel depressed or have intestinal symptoms, it’s a good idea to give your gut extra care by upping your protein and fiber, limiting fruit and other simple carbs and taking a good probiotic supplement.