A new study may be a major breakthrough for those suffering from depression. (Photo: Nik Shuliahin, StockSnap)

Major scientific breakthroughs and research don’t come along very often. However, one study I came upon this past week might be just that, and here’s why you should take notice.

Autoimmune diseases and the link to mental health
Through previous studies, the link between depression symptoms and autoimmune diseases was known, but there was much debate as to the cause. Was depression a result of pain and inability to live a normal life? Logically, this makes sense. If you can’t do the things you want to because of an incurable illness, of course it’s going to make you unhappy. However, it now appears there’s more to it than that (even though both can be true).

Here’s what we already knew: Up to 75 percent of patients with the incurable autoimmune disease lupus experience neuropsychiatric symptoms. Simply put, 75 percent of people with an autoimmune disease suffer from at least one of the following: anxiety, depression, headaches, seizures or even psychosis.

New link between inflammation and mental illness
New research out of Boston Children's Hospital made this breakthrough find: Basically, the body's autoimmune response causes our white blood cells to release a small protein that acts as a sort of alarm system moving through our bodies. This protein travels to our organs, skin and muscle tissues through our blood. However, until this new research, no one thought the protein was capable of penetrating the membrane that serves as a barrier between blood and our brains. Now we know that it can, and once it is there, it appears to launch "into attack mode on the brain's neuronal synapses."

What exactly this means for your day to day mental health is difficult to say, but it’s fair to say the side effects won’t be positive. Still, it’s good to know the enemy we’re up against. Researchers can begin to look for ways to control or manage this serious issue. Before now, they weren’t even looking. It wasn't just that they didn't see a relation between the two actions. They thought these actions weren't even physically possible.

What is inflammation, exactly?
Inflammation most commonly happens when the body's white blood cells and substances they produce are working to protect us from infection from foreign organisms. Usually, this isn’t a problem but a blessing, as it’s our bodies' way of protecting us from serious diseases. The problem is when the body goes too far, like it does for anyone suffering from an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

What happens then? The body's immune system triggers an inflammatory response when there is nothing malignant for them to fight off. However, the proteins were created, and they serve a very specific purpose. Without any obvious threat, they begin to work on healthy tissues, responding to them as if they were infected or otherwise damaged. This ultimately results in chronic pain.

Symptoms
Many people suffering from an autoimmune disease aren't aware of it. You may wonder how someone doesn't know, but look at it the same way as weight gain—it doesn't happen all at once. Even the healthiest people suffer from pain and soreness from time to time. Often it's nothing serious, but if the pain increases for months and years at a slow rate, we may begin to forget what it was like to be pain-free.

So don't assume none of this affects you. If you're suffering from chronic pain, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you figure out what's wrong. Here’s a list of the most common signs of inflammation.

Causes 
Certain foods do cause inflammation in some people. This doesn’t necessarily make you allergic to those foods, but it does mean you’re still probably better off avoiding them if you can. If you’re worried about this link, many people find their symptoms improve when they follow the Mediterranean diet.

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens as a result of a specific injury or surgery. It can be as simple as a paper cut. Chronic inflammation, the kind I discussed earlier, is long term and potentially debilitating. Genes and hormones play a role in the autoimmune diseases related to chronic inflammation. However, weight gain, poor diet, lack of exercise, stress, smoking, poor air quality, excessive drinking and poor dental health can also worsen someone's symptoms.

Is there a link between mild inflammation and mental side effects?
Since this discovery is new, it will take time to fully understand the link between inflammation and mental health. Still, it’s good to know there’s something to this, and it’s certainly possible even mild inflammation could cause problems. I’d rather not speculate too much, but if you’re having a bad day or find yourself struggling with mental health issues, it’s worth considering this possible connection.

Are you suffering from inflammation without even knowing it? If you are, where is the inflammation in your body? What can you change about your diet or daily routine to improve your symptoms? I can’t answer all those questions for you, but maybe through your own research and a doctor’s help, you can work together to improve your quality of life. That’s what being fresh and fit is all about.

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at jaymckenzie86@gmail.com with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.