The functional medicine approach to depression

The Functional Medicine Approach to Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health challenges in the US today with 17.3 million adults admitting that they had experienced at least one major episode in their lifetime.

Often, the way we treat this kind of mental health issue is to medicate and then add in psychotherapy and counselling.

There is increasing research, however, that taking a functional medicine approach can have more beneficial and long-lasting effects for those who suffer from depression.

Key Principles of Functional Medicine

Functional medicine takes a holistic approach to healthcare and looks for the root cause of an illness or medical issue, rather than simply treating the symptoms.

It starts from the standpoint that we are all biologically unique and that our bodies can heal and prevent disease if given the chance.

The root causes of depression will vary widely from person to person. The role of functional medicine is to look deeper into all aspects of the individual’s history, including their medical background, and understand what is going on to find more appropriate solutions.

Woman looking at her medication for depression

What are Conventional Treatments for Depression?

The standard medical approach to a condition such as depression is to treat the symptoms. If the patient is suffering from depression, their physician may prescribe medication to give them a lift and improve their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Depression is seen as a biological function and the overriding approach is that there is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be ‘cured’ with medication. Often, these drugs don’t work as expected and can come with side-effects such as loss of libido, nausea and constipation.

Root Causes of Depression

The chemical imbalance theory may work for some patients, but for many, the root cause of depression is down to underlying health issues. Investigating these issues, and tackling them directly, can help provide a more permanent solution that medication may be unable to provide.

Environmental Factors

The world full of potential health hazards. Individuals who are exposed to mold in the home, for example, can become the victim of an inflammatory response that has side effects including depression.

Air pollution, especially with so many people living in busy cities, can also have an impact on mental health. There’s even a suggestion that electromagnetic radiation may cause various neuropsychiatric symptoms.


Everyone has a different genetic makeup and this can have a profound effect on how we handle illness and mental health issues. Certain gene variants for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, for example, have been linked to depression.

Stressed woman suffering from depression

Chronic Stress

We all know that chronic stress is bad for us and can lead to all sorts of health issues. It causes an inflammatory effect in the body and this impacts our immune response which can then lead to mental health issues developing.

The relationship between the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands has also been shown to affect mental health. Imbalance caused by stress can mean this axis is disrupted and causing chronic overactivity.

Blood Sugar Dysregulation and Obesity

An increasing number of people throughout the world are overweight and are insulin resistant, something which not only leads to the development of type 2 diabetes but can also influence the central nervous system negatively. The relationship between obesity and depression is complex but inflammation can play a significant role.


Chronic infection can be debilitating and long-lasting and the link to depression is fairly widely accepted.

A study in 2018, found that individuals who were diagnosed late for Lyme disease, for instance, were more likely to also be diagnosed with depression compared to those where the disease was spotted early.

Leaky Gut and Gut Dysbiosis

We are beginning to understand the relationship between the gut and our overall health. An unhealthy gut biome or a leaky gut (where undesirable elements get into the bloodstream) can impact our wellbeing in various ways. There seems to be a particular link between a healthy or unhealthy biome and our overall mood.

Loneliness, Trauma, and Social Determinants of Health

There are a variety of social factors that influence mental health. Severe loneliness or past trauma are directly linked to depression as are social determinants such as where we live, financial status or our future career prospects.

Sedentary Lifestyle

We all know that undertaking regular exercise is good for our mental health. Many people around the world are living much more sedentary lifestyles compared to their ancestors. Being less active can in itself increase the risk of developing a variety of different health issues, including obesity and depression.

Sleep Deprivation and Artificial Light Exposure

The importance of sleep cannot be underestimated. Poor sleep means that we don’t wake refreshed and spend the day with less energy than we need.

There are various studies about how artificial light, particularly from our many smart devices, can further disrupt sleep. If bad sleeping habits continue over some time it can certainly have an impact on our mood and cause depressive episodes.

How the Functional Medicine Approach Can Help with Depression

Functional medicine doesn’t just look at the symptoms but tries to dig deeper and find the underlying root cause of a health issue such as depression.

It’s about approaching each individual as unique and building a health response that meets their needs based on thorough investigation and which addresses the root cause of their illness.