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Depression and health go hand in hand. It affects the body as well as the mind. Identifying the physical symptoms of depression can help with managing it.
What leads to depression and health issues? Researchers continue to study depression and its effects on health. What they are finding out is that causes of depression may be varied and could include: Chemical imbalances in the brain, nerve function, inflammation of immune receptors1, or even brain cell regeneration.2
Triggers that could lead someone to become depressed include:3
- Family genetics
- Seasonal depression
- Sadness, grief, or trauma
- Chronic illness or disease
Regardless of the root cause, the effects of depression on health can be deep and lasting.
How does depression affect the body?
Your brain is a swarm of activity. It sends signals between various regions of the brain that control your mood, emotions, and your body’s regular healthy functions. These signals are neurotransmitters. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter most associated with mood. It’s commonly believed that when levels of this hormone drop, it puts you at risk for depression and various mood and emotional problems. Besides balancing mood and emotions, serotonin also helps regulate things like sleep, appetite, pain, immune function, and sex drive.4 Serotonin may be best known as a brain chemical, but it travels throughout the body, in the bloodstream.5
What are the main physical symptoms of depression?
Depression can wreak havoc with your body. It affects nearly all aspects of your physical health, including:
- Fatigue: Disruption in normal sleep patterns is common with depression. Sleep may be too little or too much. Loss of sleep can lead to fatigue which in turn leads to problems with simple functioning on a day to day basis. Loss of concentration and focus can affect work, home life, and relationships. Exhaustion may also contribute to a weakened immune system6, putting you at greater risk for illness.
- Weight loss or weight gain: Depression affects everyone differently. Some people may have food cravings that lead to weight gain. Others may have no desire to eat and suffer weight loss. Sometimes these weight fluctuations can be sudden, and a possible symptom of depression.
- Reduced energy level: It’s common for someone suffering from depression to lose interest in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed. Energy levels drop and fatigue is common. Long term loss of energy may be a symptom of depression.
- Loss of sex drive: Loss of libido or interest in sex is often considered one of the main symptoms of depression.7 Serotonin, a key neurotransmitter, helps regulate your sex drive. When serotonin is less available, sex drive and libido are often also reduced. But sex and arousal are tied to a general loss of interest in other things you enjoy, too. This is one of the main ways depression affects the body. Stress or depression in a relationship may also contribute to sexual problems, or vice versa.
- Sickness: Lowered energy level, poor nutrition, and loss of sleep due to depression can lower your body’s ability to fight off illnesses. Long-term stress, which often leads to depression, contributes to elevated levels of the cortisol hormone. When cortisol remains high, it causes inflammation and reduced white blood cell counts, which can weaken the body’s immune system and its ability to fight off colds, flu, and more serious sickness.8 It’s not uncommon for people who suffer with chronic conditions and serious illnesses, to also suffer from depression.
- Pain: There is believed to be a very close connection between pain and the brain. People who suffer with depression may develop headaches, backaches, fibromyalgia, and other unspecific types of aches and pains as a symptom of depression.9 On the flip side, people who suffer with chronic pain may also suffer with depression. Depression can lead to poor health habits—poor diet, sleep, and exercise--which can worsen aches and pains, and vice versa, leading to a vicious pain-depression cycle that can seem never ending.
If you are dealing with depression or one or more symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor or a therapist.
What are some ways you can manage the effects of depression on health?
Here are some tips for managing the symptoms of depression:
- Talk to a doctor or therapist: If you’re struggling with depression and health issues, it’s important you talk to your doctor, a therapist, or both. Depression and the body are closely aligned. Long-term depression without treatment can lead to serious health problems. Your doctors can help develop a treatment plan that’s right for you that may include medication, talk therapy, and other techniques to help ease depression and the symptoms that come with it.
- Medication: Taking anti-depressants may be helpful for managing your depression. Many anti-depressants increase levels of serotonin10, which can help improve mood and regulate many key body functions, including sleep, energy level, and appetite.
- Do things you enjoy: Taking care of yourself is important to managing depression and health issues. When you’re low on energy, fatigued, and sad, even the smallest effort is difficult. Try working in a few small things you enjoy. Exercise, meditation, volunteer activities, hobbies, and even listening to music may help boost mood. Small steps can eventually lead to feeling better, more often than not.
- Exercise: Walking, running, gardening, biking, swimming, and many other types of physical activity are shown to boost endorphins. Like serotonin, endorphins are neurotransmitters in the brain that can make you feel happier. In this way they can help ease some symptoms of depression. Did you know that just 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week can have a positive impact on your mood?11 The more you do, the better, but start out easy at first. You’ll also want to talk to your doctor if exercise is new for you.
Your doctor or therapist is key in diagnosing depression, identifying any health issues caused by depression, and planning a routine of care that includes both emotional health and physical health, or whole person care. They can also suggest tips and techniques for helping with depression and its effects on your body.
What are some long-term effects of depression on health?
Because of how depression affects both body and mind, long-term effects can be significant.
- Fatigue, loss of energy, and general hopelessness can lead to unhealthy habits. Loss of physical activity, poor nutrition, and weight gain or weight loss can have long-term impacts.
- Relationships can be affected by depression. Long-term depression may lead to divorce and break-ups.
- Dealing with depression at work means work responsibilities may suffer. There is loss of concentration, absenteeism, inability to focus or complete tasks, loss of communication with coworkers, etc.
- Because of poor health habits, depression may be a precursor to serious and chronic illnesses12 like chronic pain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, and more.
- Long-term depression can also lead to suicidal thoughts and even suicide.
Depression is much more than feeling down and out, or what some people call “the blues.” It’s a day in and day out feeling of hopelessness that can lead to serious emotional and physical health problems. These feelings typically drag on long-term. Talk to your doctor about depression. Tell them how you feel both physically and emotionally.
This information is for educational purposes only. It is not medical advice. Always consult your doctor for appropriate examinations, treatment, testing, and care recommendations.
What causes depression? Harvard Medical School, April 11, 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression
Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin#1, accessed May 6, 2019.
How Depression Affects the Body, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/how-depression-affects-your-body#1, accessed May 6, 2019.
How does depression affect the body? Medical News Today, July 9, 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322395.php
1 Could Depression Be An Immune Response to Stress? A New Study Suggests An Answer, July 23, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/07/23/could-depression-be-an-immune-response-to-stress-a-new-study-suggests-an-answer/#247c0b6362f8
2 What causes depression? Harvard Medical School, April 11, 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-causes-depression
3 Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin#1, accessed May 6, 2019.
4 Neurotransmitters, Kenhub, https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/neurotransmitters, accessed May 6, 2019.
5 Serotonin: 9 Questions and Answers, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/serotonin#1, accessed May 6, 2019.
6 Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick? Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757, accessed May 5, 2019.
7 Low Sex Drive: Could it Be a Sign of Depression? https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/low-sex-drive-could-it-be-a-sign-of-depression accessed 5/2/19
8 What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out? Cleveland Clinic, March 1, 2017, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-when-your-immune-system-gets-stressed-out/
9 Pain and Depression: Is There a Link? Mayo Clinic, April 3, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/pain-and-depression/faq-20057823
10 Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/ssris/art-20044825, accessed May 8, 2019.
11 Exercise and Depression, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1, accessed May 8, 2019
12 How Depression Affects the Body, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/depression/how-depression-affects-your-body#1, accessed May 6, 2019.