Photo of woman with depression
Depression raises the risk of clogged arteries - could vitamin D help?

Studies shed light on depression’s link to heart failure and diabetes

10 January, 2012

Natural Health News — Clinical depression may make you more susceptible to heart attack, a new study.

What is more say Australian scientists at Charles Sturt University, the risk is especially high among people who have both depression and diabetes. And there’s more bad news. Antidepressant medication does not appear to reduce the heart attack risk.

“These results have implications worldwide, particularly in countries with high rates of diabetes such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom,” says lead author Herbert Jelinek, adding that “…people with depression need to discuss this with their general practitioner or cardiologist as well as their psychiatrist.”

Some of these findings are not new. An earlier study that found antidepressants to be no better at treating depressive symptoms than a placebo. In the US, where 1 in 10 people are taking antidepressants, evidence continues to mount that they do not work and in some cases make the problem worse.

The findings also make sense in light of what we know about the mind/body connection. For instance, the link between the grief and sadness of bereavement and heart attack risk has also been highlighted in another new study in the journal Circulation which shows that a person who is mourning the death of someone close is at greater risk of suffering a heart attack in the days immediately following the loss and for up to a month afterwards.

Depression thickens the arteries

But more importantly these make sense in light of an recent study which found that antidepressants cause the arteries to thicken 400% more than the effects of ageing.

The study conducted by the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, included over 500 middle-aged male twins. Among 59 of those pairs of twins, where only one brother was on antidepressants, the one taking the drugs usually had higher carotid intima-media thickness (IMT) – the thickness of main arteries in the neck.

Cartoid IMT thickness is, “…one of the strongest and best-studied factors that thickens someone’s arteries is age, and that happens at around 10 microns per year…In our study, users of antidepressants see an average 40 micron increase in IMT, so their carotid arteries are in effect four years older,” says lead researcher Amit Shah, MD.

The most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – of which Prozac is the most well known. In the study, researchers saw higher carotid IMT in both participants who used SSRIs (60 percent of those who took antidepressants) and those who used other types of antidepressants. However, the men who used SSRIs, which were 60% of those taking antidepressants, had significantly higher carotid IMT.

The scientists speculate that this may be due to the effects antidepressants have on serotonin levels. Most of the serotonin in the body is found outside the brain, especially in the intestines. Serotonin is also stored by platelets, the cells that promote blood clotting, and is released when they bind to a clot.

However, serotonin’s effects on blood vessels are complex and act in multiple ways. It can either constrict or relax blood vessels, depending on whether the vessels are damaged or not. Dr Shah admits that that the way SSRIs and other antidepressants interact with blood vessels is still not entirely understood.

A natural approach

There are several less harmful and more natural ways of approaching depression. One that is receiving more and more attention these days is vitamin D.

A new study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings adds weight to the vitamin D/depression link.

Researchers at the  University of Texas Southwestern, Dallas, examined the results of almost 12,600 participants from late 2006 to late 2010. They found that higher vitamin D levels were associated with a significantly decreased risk of current depression, particularly among people with a prior history of depression.

Low vitamin D levels were associated with depressive symptoms, particularly those with a history of depression, so primary care patients with a history of depression may be an important target for assessing vitamin D levels. This study did not address whether increasing vitamin D levels reduced depressive symptoms.

Other studies have also found that low vitamin D levels are associated with low mood as well as reduced ‘cognitive function’ (i.e. clear thinking, the ability to perform mental tasks), whereas those with higher vitamin D levels seem to suffer less from depression.

Interestingly low levels of vitamin D are also associated with a higher risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes as well as a higher risk of other health problems such as autoimmune diseases;  infectious diseases; osteoporosis; certain cancers; and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, multiple sclerosis, and general cognitive decline.