Inflammation Can Increase Women’s Risk Of This Key Depression Symptom More Than Men’s, A New Study Says

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Chronic inflammation has been identified as an underlying cause of a multitude of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis. Unlike acute inflammation, which helps heal the body from illness and injury, unchecked chronic inflammation can cause serious health problems over time. While linked to depressive disorders in a number of previous studies, new research also shows that inflammation can increase women’s risk of a key depression symptom — anhedonia. Low activity in the brain’s reward center causes what’s known as anhedonia, which means that a person’s capacity to feel joy and pleasure can be severely diminished.

Women are about twice as likely to experience depression as men are, Mental Health America says. A loss of enjoyment in life, or anhedonia, is a core feature of depression. This new study may help to shed light on why women are more at risk when it comes to this symptom — and depression overall.

“Our study is the first to show that there are sex differences in neural sensitivity to reward in response to inflammation, which has important implications,” lead study author Naomi Eisenberger, PhD, said in a press release. “This may suggest one reason women experience depression at a far greater rate than men, particularly for the kinds of depression that may be inflammatory in nature.”

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According to the study, a group of healthy women and men were assigned either a placebo substance, or a low, safe dose of an inflammation-promoting endotoxin. Participants then played a game where they anticipated the possibility of winning money. Researchers noted that women with higher levels of inflammation showed less activity in the reward center of the brain, while this variation in brain response was not present in the men.

“This suggests that women with chronic inflammatory disorders may be particularly vulnerable to developing depression through decreases in sensitivity to reward,” study author Mona Moieni, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Eisenberger, said in the press release. “Clinicians who treat female patients with inflammatory disorders may want to pay close attention to these patients for possible onset of depressive symptoms.”

“This study highlights the important [sex] differences that exist in the human brain and suggests a mechanism that might help explain the greater prevalence of depression in women compared to men," Cameron Carter, MD, noted in the press release.

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Since the study’s authors found that men were not as susceptible to anhedonia due to inflammation-induced brain changes, this research may help clarify why women tend to be more prone to depressive disorders than men are, according to the study. If you manage an inflammation-related illness, monitoring your moods might be helpful as part of your self-care plan. Not only is managing chronic illness a potential mental health risk in the first place, inflammation can cause further complications, especially for women.

If you’re concerned that your health is affecting your mood or mental health, or if you feel increasingly sad or depressed, it might help to talk to your doctor. As research increasingly shows, physical and mental health are intricately linked. By keeping track of your moods, and seeking treatment if depression starts to set in, you can get the help you need when you need it most.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.