Before starting off, it’s important to mention that yes, some individuals suffer more than others when it comes to depression, and people do need assistance to climb out of these dark places. There is no denying that in this article, what is being challenged is the disease-model of depression, and how it may not be helpful in helping get rid of a problem that continues to rise exponentially. Are drugs really the answer? Do they even do anything? What’s the science behind depression? It’s also important to mention that many doctors are completely unaware of this type of information, it’s not like they are ‘not telling’ you on purpose.
Anti-depressant drugs are the most commonly prescribed drugs in North America. Pharmaceutical companies are bringing in billions of dollars every single year from the sale of anti-depressant drugs alone, and they also spend billions of dollars marketing and advertising their products. Not only that, pharmaceutical companies have been found to falsify research and influence scientific literature. This is a big problem that plagues the modern day medical industry. For example, last month, an independent review found that the commonly prescribed antidepressant drug Paxil (paroxetine), is not safe for teenagers, despite the fact that a large amount of literature already previously suggested otherwise. The 2001 drug trial that took place, funded by GlaxoSmithKline, found that these drugs were completely safe, and used that ‘science’ to market Paxil as safe for teenagers. You can read more about that story here.
“The medical profession is being bought by the pharmaceutical industry, not only in terms of the practice of medicine, but also in terms of teaching and research. The academic institutions of this country are allowing themselves to be the paid agents of the pharmaceutical industry. I think it’s disgraceful.” – (source)(source) Arnold Seymour Relman (1923-2014), Harvard Professor of Medicine and Former Editor-in-Chief of the New England Medical Journal
This is a problem that’s well known in the medical community, which is why John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine published the most widely accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) entitled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. In the report, he stated that most current published research findings are false.
This was more than 10 years ago, fast forward to today where a more recent ‘cry’ to the public masses came from Dr Richard Horton, current editor-in-chief of The Lancet. He stated that half of all the published literature could be false. (source)
The examples are endless, so let’s take a look at depression.
The Chemical Imbalance Theory Might Be Incorrect
Joseph Coyle, a neuroscientist from Harvard Medical School sums it up best, “chemical imbalance is sort of last-century thinking. It’s much more complicated than that.” And it’s true, depression is much more complicated than that, at least much more than the commonly accepted belief that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. This idea was posed in the late 1950’s, and sticks today, it’s the general idea that a deficiency of select neurotransmitters exists (chemical messengers) at critical points, like synapses. One of these neurotransmitters, for example, is serotonin, others include norepinephrine and dopamine.
As Scientific American reports, “much of the general public seems to have accepted the chemical imbalance hypothesis uncritically,” and that “it is very likely that depression stems from influences other than neurotransmitter abnormalities.” (source)
Harvard medical school put out a press release a few years ago stating that it’s “often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is.” (source)
“Of course, there are brain events and biochemical reactions occurring when someone feels depressed, as there are all the time, but no research has ever established that a particular brain state causes, or even correlates with depression…In all cases studies yield inconsistent results, and none have been shown to be specific to depression, let alone causal…The fact that more than 50 years of intense research efforts have failed to identify depression in the brain may indicate that we simply lack the right technology, or it may suggest we have been barking up the wrong tree.” – Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, British Psychiatrist, Author (source)
The most commonly cited evidence to support the chemical imbalance theory comes from the fact that some drugs have been shown to increase and decrease mood in human and animal models, and yes, many antidepressants increase the amounts of serotonin and other neurotransmitters at synapses, but what we fail to realize today is just because mood can be artificially manipulated with drugs, does not mean that the chemical imbalance theory is true. Just because these antidepressants do increase and decrease certain chemical levels in the brain. does not prove the chemical imbalance theory of depression.
To say that a human being has a chemical imbalance (to whatever extent) and what neurotransmitters are involved is something that’s not possible, which is why the chemical imbalance theory of depression remains a theory. It’s not like chemical levels in the brain can accurately be measured or ‘looked at’ either.
This comes despite the fact that much of the general public still accepts the chemical imbalance theory. For example, a survey conducted in 2007 of 262 undergraduates at Cleveland State University found that more than 80 percent of the participants found it “likely” that chemical imbalances cause depression. (source)
“At best, drug-induced affective disturbances can only be considered models for natural disorders, while it remains to be demonstrated that the behavioral changes produced by these drugs have any relation to naturally occurring biochemical abnormalities which might be associated with the illness.” (source)
Keep in mind, as Harvard Medical School points out, that there are probably many chemicals involved, working both inside and outside of our nerve cells. “There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.
“The cause of mental disorders such as depression remains unknown. However, the idea that neurotransmitter imbalances cause depression is vigorously promoted by pharmaceutical companies and the psychiatric profession at large.”(source)
Again, theories like the low serotonin one, came into existence because scientists have been able to observe what drugs to to the brain. It was a hypothesis that attempted to explain how drugs could be fixing something, yet whether or not depressed people actually had lower serotonin levels actually remains to be proven. You can read more about the science here.
“The serotonin theory is simply not a scientific statement. It’s a botched theory – a hypothesis that was proven incorrect.” – Dr. Joseph Mercola (source)
Not only is there no solid scientific proof to back up the chemical imbalance theory, another is the fact that many depressed people are not even helped by taking antidepressants like SSRIs. For example, a review done by the University of California in 2009 found that one third of people treated with antidepressants do not improve, and a significant portion of these people remain depressed. Scientific American points out that “if antidepressants correct a chemical imbalance that underlies depression, all or most depressed people should get better after taking them.” (source)
That being said, there are many who do report positive benefits, but there is no way to tell if the drugs are working or of it’s just working like a placebo.
Think about this for a moment. So many of us are made to believe that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, when there is actually little scientific evidence to support that statement. Association between various brain changes and depression is large, and no studies have established a solid, cause-and-effect correlation between the brain and the disorder.
Depression has one focus, brain chemistry, despite the fact that there are multiple concerns, multiple facts, and millions of chemicals, focusing on this one chemical imbalance theory, and then dishing out drugs that actually alter brain chemistry, as Scientific American reports, “shortsighted.”
“In spite of the enormous amounts of money and time that has been spent on the quest to confirm the chemical imbalance theory, direct proof has never materialized.” (source)
I personally believe that it is quite ironic actually, because the only imbalances we know of in the brains of people called mental patients, are the ones inflicted on them by the psychiatric drugs. How ironic, we make a false claim that they have biochemical imbalances and then we give them biochemical imbalances…
It’s no secret that there is a high income partnership between drug companies and psychiatry, one that’s created a multi-billion dollar industry that’s based off of money, not science. Many experts suggest that the chemical imbalanced theory of depression has been used to market anti-depressant drugs. In fact, when we talk about scientific fraud, the latest example has to do with the antidepressant drug Paxil, as mentioned above.
An independent review found that the commonly prescribed antidepressant drug Paxil (paroxetine), is not safe for teenagers, despite the fact that a large amount of literature already previously suggested this. The 2001 drug trial that took place, funded by GlaxoSmithKline, found that these drugs were completely safe, and used that ‘science’ to market Paxil as safe for teenagers.
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine” Dr. Marcia Angell, a physician and longtime Editor in Chief of the New England Medical Journal (source)
The chemical balance theory alone transformed the pharmaceutical companies. Prior to the chemical imbalance theory, these drugs were never heard of, and this type of money was not coming in, and the financial ties between medicine and pharmaceutical companies wasn’t as strong.
American psychologist Lisa Cosgrove and others investigated financial ties between the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM) panel members and the pharmaceutical industry. They found that, of the 170 DSM panel members 95 (56%) had one or more financial associations with companies in the pharmaceutical industry. One hundred percent of the members on the panels on ‘mood disorders’ and ‘schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders’ had financial ties to drug companies. The connections are especially strong in those diagnostic areas, where drugs are the first line of treatment for mental disorders. In the next edition of the manual, it’s the same thing. (source)
“The DSM appears to be more a political document than a scientific one. Each diagnostic criteria in the DSM is not based on medical science. No blood tests exist for the disorders in the DSM. It relies on judgments from practitioners who rely on the manual.” – Lisa Cosgrove, PhD, Professor of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
The very vocabulary of psychiatry is now defined at all levels by the pharmaceutical industry,” Dr. Irwin Savodnik, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles (source)
The financial ties and examples of scientific fraud between publications and corporations is one of the biggest problems that plagues the medical industry today, and it’s a serious one.
To view the most widely accessed article in the history of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), click here: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.
It’s not illogical to assume, given all the examples of scientific fraud, and the lack of science behind why people are depressed, that the chemical imbalance theory has been used to market the heavy sale of these drugs.
We are perhaps seeing the same thing with ADHD, and you can learn more about that in this article:
Below Dr. Peter Rost, MD, a former vice president of one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world (Pfizer), shares the truth about the ties between the medical and pharmaceutical industry.
How Your Thoughts/Feelings & Emotions Can Change Your Biology
Again, as the literature (mentioned in the above paragraphs) points out, depression is not all cut and dry. Should we really be taking medications that change the chemical flows in our brains, despite the fact that we know very little about the chemical flows and neurotransmitters that are set to cause depression in the first place? Think of children, antidepressant drugs are being dished out at critical points in brain development. Despite the fact that many of these drugs have some harmful side effects, and are given to patients based on a theory that has no grounds in science, it seems a bit odd.
It’s also odd that the fact that our thoughts, feelings, emotions and how we perceive our environment can literally change our brain and the chemical flows within them.
One great example is neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and change. It’s the idea that the brain is malleable, that it’s function and structure can change with simple changes in our thinking or perception of the environment around us. It’s a response to sensing and perceiving the world, even to thinking and imagining. Human thoughts and learning actually turn on specific nerve cells which allow those cells to make new connections between each other.
Our brain shapes and re-shapes itself given how we perceive the environment alone. Neuroplasticity suggests the way we think alters chemical flows, which makes one wonder, is depression caused by a chemical imbalance or does a chemical imbalance exist because of the way we are thinking and perceiving things?
As your mind changes, your brain changes.
Apart from neuroplasticity, there are many placebo studies showing the effectiveness of how we think. You can read more about that in this article:
The wonderful and brilliant scientists over at the Institute of HeartMath have done some amazing work in shedding light on the science of the heart. This is also important and relevant to mention here when it comes to thinking about depression. You can find out more about that in this article we published last year:
I often wonder why so many people suffer from depression, and notice how drugs are the most common answer rather than going within and addressing the real problem. Perhaps, also, it’s time for us to take a look at the environment human beings choose to surround themselves with on a daily basis, because it doesn’t seem to be resonating with the majority. Our planet needs change on multiple levels, and perhaps this is one contributing factor as to why so many people don’t feel well?
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