Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Professor Vishton has a simple tip for improving your mood and staving off the symptoms of mild depression—take aspirin.
Inflammation and Depression Studies
A variety of large-scale studies have found that people who suffer from inflammation-related illness are more likely to also suffer from depression. Most of those studies have been correlational. For instance, a Danish group looked at the medical records of patients and found that people with high levels of general inflammation tend to exhibit depression symptoms.
It could be the inflammation causes the depression in a direct sort of way. However, it could also be that the connection is only indirect. Perhaps if you are suffering from the pain and discomfort of inflammation, you are more likely to feel negative about the world around you, and life in general.
There have been several recent studies, however, that have more directly explored this hypothesis that depression—certainly some depression—may result as an inflammatory disorder of the body as a whole. Some studies have targeted populations who did not exhibit depression symptoms, some of whom were prescribed anti-inflammatory medications for reasons unrelated to depression, and some of whom were not. The people who took the anti-inflammatory drugs exhibited lower rates of depression after taking these medications.
Now, that’s still not completely airtight from a scientific perspective. It’s not a large-scale, clinical trial with a double-blind, random assignment to an aspirin or nonaspirin group.
However, the evidence from this study and a wide variety of other studies like it provide fairly convincing evidence. It seems that, certainly for some people, depressed mood might result from general inflammation in the body as a whole.
Experimenting with Aspirin
“Now, aspirin and ibuprofen might seem like innocuous, everyday types of supplements,” Professor Vishton said. “I want to take just a moment here to emphasize that they are real medicine. They’re commonly used medications that are available without a prescription—but they are still serious drugs.”
You should watch out for potential side effects of these medications and always use them according to the precautions listed on the label. It’s also a good idea to consult your physician whenever you begin a new program of taking medications for anything.
With those precautions in mind, however, this taking of aspirin, ibuprofen, or other anti-inflammatory drugs is worth a try if you find yourself struggling through an extended period of negative mood. You can do a brief case study of how aspirin or ibuprofen affect the mood of a particular patient—you.
“I’m a big fan of the ABAB [reversal] design for a situation like this,” Professor Vishton said.
Collecting Solid Data
Start by collecting some baseline data on your own mood. Our memory for how we’ve been feeling over an extended time is actually not so good, so you’ll want to collect this data every day.
That is, if someone asked you how you’ve been feeling over the past week, your response will be affected—too strongly affected—by how you feel right now, at this very moment. If you are feeling particularly happy today, you will tend to remember times over the past week when you’ve also felt happy. Conversely, if you are feeling a bit sad right now, you will tend to remember times when you’ve felt similar over the past week.
To fight against this tendency, it’s good to have a notebook or spreadsheet where you note your mood on a regular basis. Professor Vishton recommends writing down a rating of your general mood three times a day: once when you wake up, once around midday, and then once around bedtime. On a scale from 1-10, where 1 is very unhappy, and 10 is blissful, how have you been feeling over the past few hours?
Treating Depression with Aspirin
After you’ve collected some of this baseline data—this is your A condition—start taking a little aspirin every day. It should be a small dose, say about 100 mg—that’s about half of one standard capsule—per day.
If it’s aspirin, it’s a good idea to take it when you are also eating something to reduce stomach discomfort associated with it. Indeed, if you start to feel any bad side effects from this medication treatment, you should stop, wait until you completely recover, and then try your study again with a smaller dose.
Take the medication and continue collecting data. After a week, take a look at your average happiness ratings across the two weeks. If the aspirin worked, then you should obviously see higher ratings. Now, this might be because of the aspirin, but maybe you are just generally getting happier, and you’re just getting over that common cold of depression.
That is, maybe it was just a coincidence. To check for that, don’t take the aspirin in week three and continue to collect data.
Take the aspirin and continue to collect data in week four. If your mood tends to go up and down when you are taking and not taking the aspirin, then you might be someone whose mood is driven by general inflammation.
Even if researchers in this area had conducted and published one of these ideal large-scale studies with random assignments and other important scientific design features—and it’s likely that someday soon such a study will have been done—you should probably still follow this self-study method if you decide to explore how anti-inflammatory drugs affect your mood.
There have been several other studies that have demonstrated a wide range of inflammatory responses among different people. People are often very similar to one another—but each person is also a bit different.
For one person, a bit of aspirin might have a large positive effect. For another person, the aspirin might have no effect at all—or even a negative effect. There is only one way to find out what works for you: try it, collect data, and take a look at the effects systematically.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.