Is Depression Genetic?

The cause of depression is not completely known, but scientists believe genetics and certain environmental factors, such as childhood trauma or severe life stress, can contribute to this mental disorder. People who have a first-degree relative like a parent or sibling with depression appear to have a two to three times greater risk of developing the condition than the general public.

It’s believed that no one single gene causes depression. People inherit a combination of genes from their parents, and certain gene combinations can make it more likely for someone to develop depression. However, some people who develop depression do not have a family history of the mental disorder.

young woman feeling sad and her friend consoling her

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What Is Depression?

While feelings of sadness, heartache, and general malaise or blahness are normal, depression causes prolonged feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness, along with a loss of interest in activities that you once enjoyed. These feelings can interfere with your ability to perform daily activities, including school and work.

Symptoms of depression can be physical and emotional, such as:

  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Sleep routine and quality changes (sleeping more or less)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Headaches
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Restlessness or trouble sitting still
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

The condition is diagnosed by a mental health professional using criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). You may be diagnosed with this mental disorder if you have these signs and symptoms for at least two weeks.

Depression most commonly begins in late adolescence or early adulthood, but it can appear at any age. If left untreated, episodes of depression can last for weeks, months, or years, and can go away and come back.

Is Depression Genetic?

It’s believed that there is a genetic component to depression, and researchers are still trying to understand the genetics involved. There is no clear pattern of heritability for depression at the moment. Studies suggest that variations in many genes, each with a small effect, combine to increase the risk of developing depression.

The genes thought to be associated with depression have diverse functions in the brain. Some of them may control the production, transport, and activity of chemicals called neurotransmitters, which relay chemical signals that allow nerve cells (neurons) to communicate with one another.

Other genes that may influence the risk of depression are involved in the growth, maturation, and maintenance of neurons, as well as the ability of the connections between neurons (synapses) to change and adapt over time in response to experience, a characteristic known as synaptic plasticity.

For example, it’s been hypothesized that genes associated with low levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine can lead to the development of depression. These neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to depression. The factors below may affect the severity of the condition and treatment response:

  • Poor nutrition: Ultra-processed foods, including sauces and sugary beverages, have been associated with a higher rate of depression.
  • Certain medical conditions: Medical conditions like thyroid conditions, sleep disorders, and certain types of cancer are associated with higher rates of depression. 
  • Substance use: The link between substance use and depression has been established in animal research. Substance use can make depression worse, and depression can lead to increased substance use as way to cope with the mental disorder.
  • Trauma: Parental neglect or abuse, bullying or teasing by friends, and overworking of employees in sweatshops have been linked to the development of depression.

Is Anxiety Genetic?

It’s common for people with depression to also have an anxiety disorder. Research has shown that comorbid depression and anxiety disorders occur in up to 25% of general practice patients. Some studies suggest that about 85% of patients with depression have significant anxiety, while 90% of patients with anxiety disorder have depression.

While certain lifestyle factors can contribute to anxiety disorders, researchers believe there is a genetic component to these mental disorders as well. Some genes, combined with environmental factors like traumatic experiences, can increase the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

It’s said that a third of the risk of one type of anxiety disorder called generalized anxiety disorder is genetic.

Overcoming Depression 

Even if you are diagnosed with depression, the mental disorder can be managed with a combination of psychotherapy and medications.

The types of psychotherapy used to treat depression include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps assess and change negative thinking patterns associated with depression. The goal of this structured therapy is to recognize negative thoughts and teach coping strategies.
  • Interpersonal therapy focuses on improving problems in personal relationships and other changes in life that may be contributing to depression. Therapists teach individuals to evaluate their interactions and improve how they relate to others.
  • Psychodynamic therapy is rooted in recognizing and understanding negative patterns of behavior and feelings that are rooted in past experiences, and working to resolve them. Looking at a person’s unconscious processes is another component of this psychotherapy.

Your mental health professionals may prescribe antidepressants to help you manage your symptoms, including:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors
  • Norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors
  • Tricyclic antidepressants
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors

Besides formal treatment options, there are also ways you can alleviate the symptoms of depression, including:

  • Eat a healthy diet: Focus on eating a colorful rainbow of fresh foods to help ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
  • Limit intake of processed foods: Consider cutting out ultra-processed foods and beverages. This includes certain yogurts and bottled drinks that have added sugars. Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption can also help.
  • Exercise regularly: The natural boost of feel-good chemicals you get from exercising is helpful for people with depression.
  • Get lots of sleep: Your sleep is more important to your mental health than you may realize. If you need help to get back on track, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist. 

When to Seek Emergency Help

If you are thinking of harming yourself or someone else, call 911 or seek emergency medical help immediately. You can also seek help through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Summary

The risk of developing depression is two to three times higher if a close relative like a parent or sibling has the mental disorder. However, it’s important to know that this increased risk is linked to a variety of genetic factors. Therefore, just because your parent or sibling has depression doesn’t mean that you will have it too. Certain environmental factors like traumatic events can also contribute to depression.

A Word From Verywell

Your genes don’t determine your future. You have the power to take steps to reduce your likelihood of ever developing depression or anxiety.

If these two mental illnesses are part of your life, you can impact how much control they have over your life by seeking appropriate treatment and making healthy lifestyle choices. You may even end up being a positive influence for other family members as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you inherit depression from your parents?

If your parents have depression, it means you may be more likely to develop depression. However, the mental disorder usually develops as a result of a combination of genes, not by inheriting one single gene from either of your parents. Environmental factors are also at play in depression.

Does having a family history of mental illness mean you’ll have one too?

Not necessarily. Genetic and hereditary factors only account for some risk of a mental disorder. Studies have shown certain genetic components, though, are common across a spectrum of mental disorders, suggesting a biological component to mental illness.

Why are women more likely to have depression?

Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression. This can be due to hormonal differences, socialization and social role differences, gendered coping styles, and different responses to stressful life events between men and women.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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