When we talk about depression, a lot of attention is focused on its effects on our mind, mood and emotions. So much so it’s easy to forget that it can have a powerful impact on the rest of the body.
It’s estimated that 16 million adults in the United States, or about 7 percent, have had at least one major depressive episode in a given year. The repercussions of this disorder are much more extensive than feeling sadness, grief, or a sense of guilt. In fact, depression can manifest as a number of symptoms.
People with depression often complain of a near-complete lack of energy. Not only do they experience mental fuzziness, but also physical tiredness. Researchers haven’t pinpointed why depression can trigger fatigue, but it is a key physical symptom. Because Vitamin D has been implicated in depression, getting outdoors for some sunshine and a brisk walk may help you overcome the tiredness.
Chronic headaches and unexplained back pain can be a symptom of depression. It might cause pain because the neurotransmitters responsible for relaying pain sensations to the brain are the same substances that regulate mood. A holistic approach to depression includes addressing these pain issues. Some antidepressant medications work on both mood and physical pain.
One of the classic signs of depression is sleep disturbance. You might wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep or you sleep 10 to 12 hours each night and still want an afternoon nap. In either case, everything requires Herculean effort. Some sleep changes are a normal part of aging. For example, you wake earlier and tend to sleep in 4-hour increments as opposed to one 8-hour bout. Insomnia, staying asleep, or getting restful sleep, is common with depression. As is the feeling of always wanting to sleep and sleeping more than 10 hours each day without feeling rested. Without sufficient shuteye, your body doesn’t have time to repair, weakening your immune system and making you more vulnerable to disease. Additionally, while depression causes sleep problems, the same sleep problems can lead to or worsen depression.
Weakened Immune System
Depression can cause major immune system issues. People who are depressed often have elevated levels of stress hormones. These cause inflammation, which triggers an immune system response. When your immune system is chronically responding to excessive levels of stress hormones, your body may become less equipped to deal with threats from bacteria and viruses. If you have been diagnosed with depression, you may want to take precautions, like washing your hands frequently or getting a flu shot.
People with depression may have frequent stomach problems, like nausea, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation. One possible explanation involves a neurotransmitter in the brain and gut called serotonin. The brain chemical is linked to depression because it is believed to help regulate mood, but researchers also know that it also plays a role in maintaining digestive function. Most of the body’s serotonin is produced and stored in the gut. Researchers are very interested in the “gut-brain” connection, which can help reveal how mental and digestive health influence one another. In addition to serotonin, microbes found in the gut are being explored as potential contributors to everything from mood to immunity—both of which have implications for depression.
Headaches are another symptom closely linked to depression. People often complain of a dull headache in the morning and at night. These are likely to be tension headaches that happen when the muscles in your neck and scalp are strained. Why does this occur? People with depression often subconsciously tense up this muscle group without realising and give themselves a headache.
The term “psychomotor” refers to symptoms that make a person feel as though they are moving at a different pace than usual. For example, some people with depression perceive their thoughts as sluggish and feel like their movements are heavy. Others experience symptoms at the opposite end of the spectrum. They may say that they “can’t sit still,” or feel fidgety, restless, and agitated. Mentally, they may experience anxious or intrusive thoughts. To some extent, psychomotor symptoms become more common as someone gets older. Even though depression in the elderly is common, this is not a normal part of aging. For this reason, psychomotor changes may be a sign of depression rather than just a part of aging.
Appetite and Weight Changes
Depression alone can make someone feel like eating more or less than normal. People who are depressed may report they’ve lost or gained weight without trying. One factor is “emotional eating” which refers to a person using food to self-medicate feelings of depression. These behaviors can lead to weight gain over time. If someone is overweight or obese, changes in self-image, associated health problems, and weight stigma can contribute to depression. Depression can also cause someone to lose weight. Loss of appetite, low energy, and motivation makes preparing meals difficult.
People who have eating disorders, such as anorexia, often have depression or another mental illness. Weight loss through eating disorders can be extreme and may cause a host of physical symptoms. Several studies have suggested that malnutrition may worsen depression. People who don’t get enough to eat for other reasons, such as poverty, cancer, and old age, are also at risk for depression related to malnutrition. Changes in appetite can also be a side effect of antidepressant medications.
Worsening chronic health conditions
People who already have a chronic health condition may find their symptoms worsen with depression. Chronic illnesses may already feel isolating and stressful, depression doesn’t help. A person with depression may also struggle to follow treatment which can make symptoms worse. Preserving mental health may improve physical health and make a chronic condition easier to manage.
Research indicates that chronic stress and depression are linked to inflammation and may change the immune system. It also suggests that depression could be due to chronic inflammation. People with depression are more likely to have inflammatory conditions or autoimmune disorders, such as IBS, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. However, it is unclear whether depression causes inflammation or vice versa. Eating can also cause inflammation in your body.
First, if you’re experiencing chest pain of any kind, it is extremely important you get it checked immediately to rule out heart attacks and other serious conditions. But, chest pain can actually be linked to it. Seems strange, but there’s a good reason. It often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and panic attacks, which are typically felt in the chest. Studies have shown that it is one of the more common explanations of chest pain.
Heart disease has long been associated with major depression, both as cause and effect. Feelings of depression are common after a heart attack. People with depression have elevated levels of inflammatory substances that are known to play a direct role in heart disease. They also cause alterations in blood platelets, cells in the blood that are essential to clotting. The stress-related hormones that have detrimental effects on brain function put a burden on heart function. A recent study found that cardiovascular events and death increased by 20 percent in people with four or more depressive symptoms compared to people without.
People who are depressed may be under stress often or for a long period of time. While it’s not the only cause, chronic stress has been known to contribute to high blood pressure. Chronic stress in particular, has been linked to elevated blood pressure. In turn, hypertension increases a person’s risk of heart disease, which includes heart attacks and strokes. Based on the growing body of evidence supporting this relationship, many researchers consider it a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is a serious problem which can wreak havoc on your mind and body. The best ways to fight it are by making sure you eat well and exercise regularly.