Chemical imbalance is often cited as the primary cause of depression. This creates an idea that a person’s brain either has too much or little of a certain chemical when, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that. According to the Harvard Medical School, upward of millions of chemical reactions in the brain work to regulate mood, perceptions, and how a person experiences life, taking place both within and outside nerve cells. Anti-depressants help to correct these imbalances — and they may work even better when combined with anti-inflammatory medication, found a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study was the largest meta-analysis to ever be conducted regarding patients suffering from depression or individual symptoms of depression. Researchers looked at 14 international studies involving over 6,000 patients and found treatment that combines anti-inflammatory medication with antidepressants has a positive effect. “When combined they give an important result which, in the long term, strengthens the possibility of being able to provide the individual patient with more personalized treatment options," Ole Köhler, lead study author and medical student-researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a press release.

However, Köhler added he and his team still need to clarify which patients will benefit most from this particular combination (if only because some anti-inflammatories have been found to increase health complications). Though combination treatment, whether it’s a variety of drugs or drugs and therapy, continue to be shown as a greater way to treat depression. "The analysis should be seen as a significant milestone in a research context, and this could be a landmark for what future research projects and treatment need to focus on," Köhler said.

Let’s take a step back: anti-inflammatory drugs… for depression? Of all the causes associated with the disease, inflammation — the body’s protective response when attacked by germs — isn’t one you typically read about it. Yet, a 2013 study in BMC Medicine reported inflammation was already on its way to being recognized as “a mediating pathway to both risk and neuro-progression in depression.” A protein called cytokines is responsible for chronic inflammation, which occurs when the body's first attempt at protection against harmful stimuli fails, and thus the body continues to attack healthy tissue. Prior studies have shown healthy participants given infusions to trigger the release of this protein results in classic depressive symptoms.

Cytokines are needed to reduce inflammation, physically identifiable by red, sore, or swollen skin and joints; it’s when cytokines are continually produced that they start to travel away from the inflamed part of the body and into the bloodstream, the effects of which can range from muscle tissue damage to plaque build-up in arteries. If, in fact, chronic inflammation is found to play a significant role in depression and depressive symptoms, this will revolutionize how professionals approach certain patients.

There are drugs for chronic inflammation, like statins and aspirin, but there are so many natural ways to prevent and treat the condition. An anti-inflammatory diet, for starters, strikes a healthy balance between omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) and omega-6 (pro-inflammatory) fatty acids for less inflammation. We aren't big into math either, so if you can't be bothered with the ratio, just know the more omega-3s you consume (think oily fish, walnuts, flax and canola oil), the better. Probiotics should be included in the diet, too, as your gut is home to nearly 70 percent of your immune system. Consider sourcing more sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, coconut kefir, and yogurt into your diet before looking to supplements.

Generally focusing on healthier food, as well as restoring your body with quality sleep and less stress, are additional ways to reduce inflammation. Though that's not to say relieving inflammation will universally benefit those with depression. Each patient is different, thus the strong advocacy for individualized treatment. To go back to Köhler's conclusions, more research needs to be done before any clear, standard advice can be given regarding inflammation and depression,

That said, the mounting evidence that links the two conditions isn't anything to ignore. Beyond depression, chronic inflammation is believed to be the root cause for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and allergies, too. Being more mindful of it can improve overall health. And really, a little yogurt never hurt anybody.

Source: Köhler O, Benros M, Nordentoft M, Farkouh M. Iyengar R, et al. Effect of Anti-inflammatory Treatment on Depression, Depressive Symptoms, and Adverse Effects: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014.