Walking Guide
Walking Guide

Health & Wellness Articles

What Causes Depression?

Recognize Your Risk Factors

Although a challenging life event, such as the death of a loved one or financial hardship, can trigger depressive episodes, the causes of depression are complex and overlapping. There are two main categories of risks that can contribute to depression—those that you can't change, and those that you can.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
These variables are out of your control. Although you can't do anything to change them, it's important to know whether you fall into any of these higher-risk categories.
  • Your family history. Depression appears to have a genetic component. You are more likely to experience depression if one of your parents also suffered from depression. If both parents had depression, your risk of developing it is twice as high.
  • Your gender. Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. Experts believe this is due to fluctuating hormone levels that women experience throughout life.
  • Your age. While you may think that the risk of developing depression increases with age, that's not the always the case. In fact, studies show that the elderly are more likely to be happy and content with their lives than their younger counterparts. Depression can occur at any age (even in children), but it is most common in people between the ages of 24 and 44.
  • Your health history. Chronic health conditions such as disability, heart disease, hypothyroidism, stroke, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Parkinson’s disease can lead to depression. A history of depression also increases your risk for future episodes.
  • Psychosocial factors. Depression is more common in people who have a history of trauma, abuse (sexual, physical or emotional), neglect, alcoholism, drug addiction, and insufficient family structure.
  • Environmental factors. Chronic depression occurs more often in people who live in areas afflicted with war, natural disasters, and poverty. Seasonal depression is most common in high latitudes with extreme seasonal changes.
  • Life changes. The loss of a loved one, conflicts with others, losing or starting a new job, the end of a relationship, retirement, moving to a new city and more—many life events can trigger depressive episodes.
While you can’t change things like family history or your environment, you can control certain factors related to your lifestyle—the choices you make each day about what to eat and how to care for yourself. These are areas of your life where you can take proactive steps to help prevent and treat depression and enhance your overall health.

Controllable Risk Factors
  • Your diet. Food can affect your mood. A diet too low in iron, healthy carbohydrates, and calories can cause symptoms of depression. Eating plenty of calories, whole grain carbohydrates, Omega-3 fatty acids, and iron-rich foods can improve symptoms. Learn how to eat well when dealing with depression.
  • Your activity level. Inactive people tend to have higher stress levels, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and mood swings. Regular exercise produces “feel good” chemicals in the brain, enhancing the benefits of antidepressant medications, and producing similar results. Learn more about exercising to relieve depression.
  • Your alcohol & drug use. For many, depression and substance abuse are closely connected. Alcohol and illicit drugs can interact with medications, worsen depression and its symptoms, and prevent recovery. If you think you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, seek help.
  • Your sleeping patterns. Changes in your sleeping habits and the quality of your sleep can be closely related to your mood. A lack of sleep can cause many symptoms similar to those of depression. Get tips for better shut-eye.
  • Your medications. Several types of medications can cause depression. If you think your medication may be contributing to your symptoms, talk to your doctor about finding an alternative medication for your condition that doesn't have this negative side effect.
  • Your stress levels. People with uncontrolled, chronic stress are more prone to developing depression. Taking time to relax and relieve stress through exercise, meditation, yoga or other techniques can help.
While lifestyle changes alone cannot treat depression, talk with your health care provider if you think the factors above may be affecting your mood, thoughts and behavior. Every small lifestyle change you can make, in conjunction with the treatment plan laid out by your doctor, can improve your overall health and help enhance the effectiveness of medical interventions.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Page 1 of 1  
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!

Member Comments

  • In my growing up family depression was never allowed--you just kept working. Sometimes it worked but many times not. I find just getting outside to help a lot.
  • Thank you for an excellent article on depression. I have had it my whole life and found the article to be very informative. If people want to go deeper the internet is open to all!
  • I didn't see any mention of short day effects on some people. Depression can also occur after severe trauma. It may be linked with Fibromyalgia in some way since they are both treated with meds from the same group. Not everyone can tolerate meds from that group.
    You can get all causes of depression: https://thewellne
  • Depression has always been considered a bad word in my family. My Father's mother, my grandmother had been hospitalized due to her depression throughout the majority of his child hood.
    Years ago, I was taking Prozac to a period of depression that I had been going through. I felt like it helped at the time, but the cause was never determined.
  • ALPHIE67
    I have Clinical Depression which is inherited. I do take medication but there are times when it just isn't enough and food is what I head for. All the sweet desserts, chocolate and also anything crunchy. As much as I know intellectually, emotions take over and I hate when that happens. I do Zumba 1hr 3X a week plus strength training and that really does help emotionally. You can actually feel the endorphins working plus everybody is sweating and panting with you so your not alone. Another big help is as you're exercising with the instructor there is great big mirror in front of you so you can't help but see what you really truly look like.
  • Thank you Marty and Zonkeroo - there is a big difference between "being depressed" and "having depression." Contrary to what the quiz says, everyone feels depressed at some point, and it's normal. When students study real hard and get a grade much lower than expected, it can alter the mood for a sustained amount of time, and that is depression, a lowered state of mood/being. When an adult gets a demotion, totals a car, goes through serious illness, or has financial concerns it can be classified as being depressed.

    Having depression is different. Think back to the commercials you see on TV. Does it last more than two weeks? Does your life come to a halt because of this serious altered mood? Do you feel like a completely different version of yourself? These are signs that the lowered mood state is more serious and needs assistance.

    To Jenn, if you're still reading this, there are breaking studies in the past few years that suggest the effects of PTSD can lessen to such a degree that they no longer impact the person's daily life. The difference between the PTSD of Vietnam and that of the Gulf Wars is the kind of care that's available today. Medication to treat the immediate effects makes space for talk-therapy (counseling) to be effective. While you used to need to be on medications permanently, they are finding that it may no longer be the case. However, if you do go on medications (and they do a wonderful job when the right one is found), do not go off them alone - do it with the advice and oversight of a trained medical professional.

    Remember, if you need it, it's okay. No one would tell a diabetic to get it together and just start making insulin. No one would tell a cancer patient to fight it harder so those cells go away. They rely on a medical team to help them manage and work with what's going on. You can manage depression with help and live a very full life.

  • Depression is a beast and it totally sucks. I've been battling depression since 2003 (actively) and have not really found any relief. I switch from one medication to the next hoping for some relief. Exercise does help *SOME* but not enough that I find myself happy again. Diet does help *some* but not enough that I can kick my meds to the curb. Prior to 2007 it was clinical depression and anxiety. Post 2007, it is clinical depression, anxiety, ADHD and PTSD brought on by the call to duty while battling PPD. I believe my depression is mostly environmental, but could be biological - hard telling since I'm the only one in my family being treated for it.

    I have tried and tried to change my attitude, reduce my stress, eat better, exercise more, etc, etc, etc, but none of those things have provided the relief I seek. The Army doc told me that I'd be on medication 'til the day I die. I refuse to accept that and will continue to seek a coping mechanism that works for me without using drugs. We'll see how it goes...
  • I realize that this article is a broad overview of depression which is also a very broad topic. MARTY32M is right that a lot of the items listed are risk factors not actual causes in and of themselves. Many people have these things going on and do not have depression. I also would hope that the article would mention what I call "situational" depression vs clinical or biological based depression. Some situations leave people temporarily depressed due to a variety of reasons perhaps having to do with attitude, coping issues, normal life or other psychological reasons. However there is also long term biologically based depression which has to do with brain chemistry. The person may not have any risk factors going on (loss of job, divorce, death in family ...etc.) and still have biologically based depression due to low serotonin or other brain chemistry reasons. It only adds frustration to the problem to tell people dealing with this type of depression to "toughen up" or just change their attitude. It's important to know that while exercise and other techniques may help there really is no cure. Medication even has it's limits. I don't like it when people say get conciling or medication as if that will completely eliminate the problem. In my opinion like many things in life it is just something we can minimize but never completely get "cured" from.
  • Marty is correct.

    WebMD has useful information about the multiple causes as well.

    How Is Biology Related to Depression?

    Researchers have noted differences in the brains of people who are depressed as compared to people who are not. For instance, the hippocampus, a small part of the brain that is vital to the storage of memories, appears to be smaller in people with a history of depression than in those who've never been depressed. A smaller hippocampus has fewer serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a calming brain chemical known as a neurotransmitter that allows communication between nerves in the brain and the body. It's also thought that the neurotransmitter norepinephrine may be involved in depression.

    Scientists do not know why the hippocampus is smaller in those with depression. Some researchers have found that the stress hormone cortisol is produced in excess in depressed people. These investigators believe that cortisol has a toxic or poisonous effect on the hippocampus. Some experts theorize that depressed people are simply born with a smaller hippocampus and are therefore inclined to suffer from depression.

    One thing is certain -- depression is a complex illness with many contributing factors. The latest scans and studies of brain chemistry that show the effects of antidepressants help broaden our understanding of the biochemical processes involved in depression. As scientists gain a better understanding of the cause(s) of depression, health professionals will be able to make better "tailored" diagnoses and, in turn, prescribe more effective treatment plans.

    How Is Genetics Linked to the Risk of Depression?

    We know that depression seems to run in families. This suggests that there's a genetic link to depression. Children, siblings, and parents of people with severe depression are much more likely to suffer from depression than are members of the general population. Multiple genes interacting with one another in special ways probably contribute to the variou...
  • MARTY32M
    These are not causes of depression. They are risk factors. Many of them are also risk factors for heart attack, but they are not causes. The cause of most heart attacks is a blood clot that forms when a plaque inside a coronary artery ruptures and blocks the artery, but why the plaque ruptures is not known. The cause of depression is even less well known. Here's a summary from


    "There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.

    "Research indicates that depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain. Brain-imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different than those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters
    –chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appea
    r to be out of balance. But these images do not reveal why the depression has occurred."
    I'm thinking about you EVARABAGO - I think you've had more than your share of things the last few years but you've survived and have shown yourself to be stronger than you know. Sometimes its one day at a time, please keep the faith as you are doing it! One day at a time.
    I said a prayer for you, Evarabago and CowboyCook! Hope you are both doing well. I think that we who tend to be depressed have a tougher time dealing with life events, like the death of a loved one. Please post again and let me know how you are doing.
    for some wonderful information about depresssion and other mental illnesses you can go to : BringChange2Mind.
    org. Its a wonderful site that was started by Glenn Close. Her sister is bipolar (like me) and her newphew has schizophrenia. It is for anybody affected by such diseases. It is estimated that 1 in 4 families is impacted by somebody they know or love. It has super information, and perhaps can be helpful in some small way to you. I know its helpful to me to not feel alone in my struggles with bipolar and weight.
    My depression seemed to surface in college. I would find myself removing myself from people and situations more and more frequently. I was not diagnosed with Major depression until my thirties. Even then the meds and therapy did not seem to "cure" the depression. It was not until I was 55 that an astute psychiatrist gave me the lable bipolar. It fits! It fills in the missing pieces, explains some of my strange behaviors and has helped me plot a course of medication and therapy that addresses all the issues. Please, if your depression is not getting better, or seems stuck , seek additional help that perhaps can unlock the puzzle.
    Wishing you all good things.........

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.