By: Merrill Montgomery, University of Iowa College of Pharmacy, Class of 2018
In 2015, 6.7% of adults in the US suffered from at least one episode of depression that lasted for two or more weeks, and that interfered with their ability to work, attend school, or otherwise function normally. Despite how common depression is in the US population, for many years it was poorly understood even by researchers and health professionals. The more scientists and researchers learn about the human brain, the more they begin to understand that depression, like many other disorders, stems from irregularities in both the amount of the important messenger chemicals that our brain cells release, as well as irregularities in how our brain cells, called neurons, process these messages.
One neurotransmitter that’s very important for mood is called serotonin. There are many others but for now, we’ll just focus on serotonin. When good things happen, your brain cells release lots of serotonin. When other cells “hear” these chemical messages, it creates the feelings of joy and well-being we associate with being happy, having fun, and generally enjoying life.
When sad things happen, the levels of serotonin in the synapses fall and we feel sad. In a healthy brain, there’s always enough serotonin floating around that, on any given day, you feel okay. In a healthy brain, the levels of serotonin are only low in response to sad things happening, and the levels can easily recover so that a person feels “okay” or “happy”. What happens in depression?
When you’re depressed, something goes wrong and your brain cells either stop making the amount of serotonin that your brain needs to feel “normal” and/or your brain cells stop being able to “hear” serotonin well enough to respond appropriately.
This lack of serotonin (or inability of your brain to respond correctly to serotonin) means that people who are depressed always feel like something is wrong, even when life is okay (or even good). They lack the chemicals they need to enjoy even their favorite things.
No matter how much a depressed person knows, logically, that they have nothing to be sad about, their brain keeps telling their body that something bad or sad has happened or that they have nothing to be happy about. Just like people with diabetes don’t make the necessary chemicals to use sugar (insulin), people with depression don’t make the chemicals needed to feel happy.
Depression is treatable.
Depression medications work to both increase the levels of your brain’s “happy” chemical messengers and enhance your brain cells’ ability to “hear” the happy messages. Here are some important tips for treating your depression:
Be Patient: Your brain’s whole system of sending and receiving chemical messages is very complicated and delicate, and it’s important to make changes gradually.
Keep Taking Your Medication: Your depression medication isn’t going to start working overnight. It sometimes takes two weeks to start feeling even a little bit better, and it takes 8-12 weeks for the medication to reach full effect.
Stay Hopeful: Every brain is different, and not every medication works for every person. Sometimes it takes trying a couple of different things or even combining a couple of different medications before you find the magic combination that will restore the balance in your brain.
Your NuCara pharmacists are always happy to help you optimize your treatment in whatever ways we can!