It’s not just big black eyes or brown curls that you could inherit from your parents. Scientists and doctors now say that like diabetes and heart ailments, depression too has a genetic link.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines depression as a “common mental disorder, characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness and poor concentration". Globally, more than 350 million people of all ages suffer from depression, according to WHO. It predicts that by 2020, depression will rival heart disease as the health disorder with the highest disease burden (its impact in terms of financial cost, mortality, morbidity or other indicators) in the world.

At its most severe, depression can drive a person to suicide. The impact can be enough to turn simple everyday tasks into difficult challenges. “Depression often starts at a young age. There is a high probability that a person will develop depression if parents or other family members are depressed," says Parul Tank, psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital, Mulund, Mumbai.

Take the example of a New Delhi-based banker turned entrepreneur, who did not want to be named. He decided to give entrepreneurship a shot after a successful stint with a multinational firm. When his three-year-old venture failed, this 46-year-old father of two sank into a prolonged spell of depression. In his own words, he just “stopped living" for nearly three years, feeling no highs or lows, just a dull sense of existing without any objective. The doctor explained that while his own struggle with depression may have been triggered by the collapse of his business venture, his parents’ depression history made him genetically predisposed to the disorder. The banker, who took medication for a year, is now healthy.

If one parent is suffering from depression, a child’s risk of depression is three times higher than that of a child without a depressed parent, says Sameer Malhotra, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Hospitals, New Delhi. “If the parent developed the mental illness before the age of 20, the child’s risk rises four-fivefold," he adds.

A study, published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry in 2011, pinned it down to a gene that appears to be common in multiple family members with depression. The chromosome 3p25-26 was found in more than 800 families with recurrent depression. The study says 40% of those with depression can trace it to a genetic link; environmental and other factors make up 60%.

Achal Bhagat, senior consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, says it is most likely a bit of both. “Some diseases are caused by a single defective gene like cystic fibrosis, several kinds of muscular dystrophy and Huntington’s disease. But many common disorders like depression, diabetes and high blood pressure are also influenced by genes. In these disorders, there seem to be combinations of genetic changes that predispose some people to become ill," he says. Dr Bhagat says doctors still don’t know how many genes are involved in depression. “But it is very doubtful that any one gene causes depression in any large number of people."

In a country where depression is either considered just a mood swing or comes with a stigma attached, it becomes all the more important for people to know that if they have suffered from depression, their child might too.

A 2006 Swedish study, also published in the American Journal Of Psychiatry, found that women had a 42% chance of hereditary depression and men, 29%. “The heritability of major depression is higher in women than in men and some genetic risk factors for major depression are sex-specific in their effect," says the study.

“Especially during puberty, a girl’s body goes through a lot of changes. Then there are peer factors and environmental issues that can enhance the risk of depression. It is advisable for both women and men to exercise and maintain a healthy diet and have a stable environment at home," says Dr Tank.

There are steps you can take, however, to reduce your chances of being depressed. “If there’s a family history of depression, one should be more careful about his/her lifestyle, including eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical activity and general work-life balance. Self-awareness is key," says Dr Malhotra. “You should seek professional help if symptoms (such as feelings of hopelessness, loss of appetite and interest in daily activities) continue for more than a month; more so if you are genetically predisposed."

Work out right

Regular exercise can help you to cope with depression, maybe even prevent it. “Exercise stimulates the release of serotonin, a chemical that is thought to be in low supply when someone is battling depression," says Deckline Leitão, a Bengaluru-based fitness specialist and director of exercise science at Vesoma, a sports medical centre. He lists out how you should go about exercising if you are prone to, or are battling, depression.

Enjoy what you do

Take up some exercise that you have enjoyed in the past. “But please ensure that you take it easy in the beginning, especially if there has been a long gap between your exercising years," says Leitão. “Gradually introduce physical activity into your daily routine. Even a 15-minute walk can help you clear your mind and relax." Remember that any exercise is better than none.

Sporty spirit

If you train in a recreational team sport, make sure you train with people who are relaxed about the game and don’t get hyper about winning at any cost.

If working out alone makes you feel better, then you can opt for the gym, yoga or running. “Generally, a combination of aerobic training will give you a natural high from the release of endorphins, and strength training will make you see visible changes in your body—a perfect recipe to boost your spirits," says Leitão.

Soak in the sun

“Make sure that you get adequate amount of sunlight as it supplies vital vitamin D, which is a common deficiency. Sunshine can boost your mood due to the increase in serotonin levels which drop down in cold, darker and gloomy weather," says Leitão.

Eat well

Food and mood go together. Food helps alter the neurochemical messengers called neurotransmitters which help in brain function. Changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters lead to alterations in moods and state of mind. New-Delhi based nutritionist and dietitian Ishi Khosla’s recipe: “Include good-quality fat through natural sources like nuts, seeds, fatty fish and cold-pressed oils, and snack smart on fresh fruits, dry fruits, nuts, seeds, roasted wholegrains, soups, salads and curd if you are feeling hungry.

“Also, make sure to drink plenty of fluids and remain well hydrated. Green tea, jasmine tea, chamomile tea help calm the mind."

Foods rich in serotonin

Serotonin regulates many feelings, including pain, sleep, mood and hunger. Carbohydrates increase serotonin levels, making you feel calmer. Don’t go overboard with carbohydrates, though. “A diet high in carbohydrates can lead to insulin-resistance, leading to obesity and the beginning of type 2 diabetes," says Khosla.

Foods to fight depression

Growing evidence indicates that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids provides significant health and mental health benefits. “Good sources of omega-3 fats include mustard oil, wheat, red kidney beans, methi (fenugreek) seeds, soybean and green leafy vegetables. Omega 3 is also present in flaxseeds (the richest source)," says Khosla.

Even if you are predisposed to depression, you don’t have to let it get the better of you.

Close