Your Brain Is Not To Blame: Research Finds “Low Serotonin” Is Not The Cause of Depression

By Renata Kiss··  5 min read
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If you’ve ever struggled with depression and sought help for it, your doctor probably recommended taking antidepressants. Depression has been long known as a “chemical imbalance” in the brain, but new research has found that low serotonin levels aren’t to blame for this prevailing mental health issue.

A recent Psychology Today article reported on a comprehensive review challenging the serotonin hypothesis as the leading cause of depression. While researchers have been questioning the supposed cause-and-effect relationship between serotonin and depression since the early 2000s, strong pharmaceutical marketing, cultural influence, and highly subjective U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approvals squashed scientific scrutiny. This has led to an incredible surge in anti-depressant medication since the 1990s, resulting in a multi-billion dollar industry. Today, 85-90% of the public believes that a “chemical imbalance” in the brain is responsible for depression. 

Debunking the “Science” behind Antidepressant Medication

Most antidepressants, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are supposed to correct unusually low serotonin levels, according to Science Daily. But is that how SSRIs really work? The article quotes two Florida-based researchers and professors, Jeffrey Lacasse and Jonathan Leo, who agreed a decade ago that there isn’t any scientific basis for “balanced serotonin” levels.

85-90% of the public believes that a “chemical imbalance” in the brain is responsible for depression. 

Echoing similar findings, Joanna Moncrieff, Professor of Psychiatry at University College London (UCL), said that longtime research hasn’t found evidence that serotonin levels cause depression. She added, “It is high time to inform the public that this belief is not grounded in science.” 

If science can’t back up SSRIs, then why are they so popular? Steven Hollon, Ph.D., at the American Psychological Association says that “major pharmaceutical companies heavily market their medications directly to the public and health professionals…While therapy is getting sharper, more effective, and more enduring, it is continuing to lose market share to medication.”

Understanding Depression

When it comes to treating depression, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Medication is designed to be a one-stop shop to better mood, but depression is so much more than “feeling blue.” In fact, researchers have found that marking depression a strictly medical issue discourages mental recovery and encourages drug dependency.

Causes of depression vary widely, but there are some general patterns that may lead to this mental state. These factors can be psychological, emotional, environmental, social, and even spiritual in nature. A genetic predisposition and gender differences may also play a role in depression. According to the University of Minnesota, women are 70% more likely to experience depression in their lifetime than men, yet none of these causes have the final say in mental health. 

Marking depression a strictly medical issue discourages mental recovery and encourages drug dependency.

Therapy vs. Antidepressants

Antidepressants provide some immediate relief, but they can come with many unpleasant side-effects such as nausea, increased appetite and weight gain, low libido, insomnia, agitation, and constipation. Therapy is a safer, healthier, and more economic choice for long-term improvement and well-being, according to The American Psychological Association. In reality, the long-term benefits of psychotherapy outweigh the short-lived symptom management of antidepressants. This discovery is so significant that Norwegian Health Authorities have been recommending psychological interventions for mild to moderate depression cases before prescribing medication to patients. 

Therapy Doesn’t Make You a Victim

Although our culture has embraced “mental health” as a conversation piece, deciding to see a therapist can be nerve-wracking. A common objection is that people don’t want to stir up their painful past. When clients confront long-suppressed emotions, they may feel overwhelmed and helpless. But they’re never alone. It’s the therapist’s job to offer well-informed, compassionate care that alleviates the burden of these intense feelings and experiences. Unlike antidepressants, therapy is designed to bring healing. It’s not meant to create a co-dependent system. It’s meant to empower change. 

Seeking Therapeutic Healing

There are a variety of therapies that address specific aspects of depression, depending on personal needs. Interpersonal Therapy helps with dysfunctional relationships, Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy corrects negative thought patterns, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy helps people with “bouts of depression and chronic unhappiness,” Somatic Therapies address the mind-body connection, and Psychodynamic Therapies focus on childhood trauma

Unlike antidepressants, therapy is designed to bring healing.

When it comes to finding a good therapist, there are a few things to note. A potential match should be a licensed professional with a track record of evidence-based treatment sessions. Apart from practical considerations like session fees and health insurance coverage, the most important qualities to seek in a counselor are trust, safety, and helpfulness.

What If Therapy Is Too Expensive?

As much as therapy should be considered as a long-term mental health investment, life happens, and we may find ourselves in a financial rut. If that’s the case, there’s good news. There are other forms of therapeutic help that can start the healing journey. Mindfulness apps have gotten quite popular, and not without merit. The well-known app, Headspace, has been proven to decrease depression and improve mood after 10 days of use. Other helpful apps include Calm, Breethe, Simple Habit, and The Mindfulness App. These applications feature guided meditations that center around introspection, observation, concentration, and compassion. For best results, a daily 10-minute session spent comfortably seated in a quiet place is recommended. 

There are many therapy accounts on social media too that are worth checking out. Noteworthy ones are run by therapists such as @themillenial.therapist, @mswjake, @mindfulmft, and @the.holistic.psychologist. These accounts share bite-size insights and practical wisdom with those who struggle with trauma, relationship issues, and personal boundaries. 

Closing Thoughts

Releasing serotonin’s 30-year grip on depression is great news for mental health. While most of us like the idea of a magic pill solving all of our problems, reality simply doesn’t support that approach. Our mental health is shaped by combinations that are far too complex for generalized solutions, and that’s ok. We’re not robots. We’re humans with specific needs and experiences. Managing depression from a purely physical perspective is just the tip of the iceberg. Real healing is found in safe, therapeutic spaces where we can honestly reflect and grow from painful experiences without judgment. 

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  Mental Health
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