Depression is a mental health disorder that not only affects our emotional well-being but also has a profound impact on our physical health. The connection between depression and physical health is a complex and bidirectional relationship. Research has shown that depressed individuals are more likely to experience a range of physical health problems, and, conversely, physical health conditions can contribute to the development or worsening of this mental health disorder. In this article, we will explore the effects of depression on the body, the relationship between it and physical health problems, and what steps can be taken to improve both mental and physical well-being. The key point is that depression and physical health are linked.
Depression and Physical Health – Effects on the Central Nervous System
Depression can have a significant impact on the central nervous system, leading to a variety of symptoms that are often overlooked or dismissed. Older adults, in particular, may have difficulty identifying cognitive changes associated with depression, attributing them to the process of ageing. Memory loss and reduced reaction time are common in older depressed adults compared to their younger counterparts.
The symptoms include overwhelming sadness, feelings of guilt or emptiness, and a loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities. These symptoms can manifest both emotionally and physically, making it challenging for individuals to understand and articulate their experiences. Frequent episodes of crying may be a symptom, although not everyone exhibits this particular manifestation.
Another way depression and physical health are linked are the visible physical symptoms include chronic body aches, unexplained pain, headaches, and fatigue. These physical manifestations may not respond to traditional pain medication and can be associated with neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Depression can also impair concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities, making it difficult to maintain work schedules and fulfil social obligations.
Effects on the Digestive System
Depression can also have a significant impact on the digestive system. Many individuals with depression experience changes in appetite, leading to either increased or decreased food intake. Overeating or bingeing can result in weight gain and obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, a loss of appetite, particularly in older adults, can lead to a condition known as geriatric anorexia.
Digestive problems are also common in individuals with depression, including stomachaches, cramps, constipation, and malnutrition. The gut-brain connection plays a crucial role in these digestive disorders, as the nervous system influences the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. Chronic anxiety and stress associated with depression can exacerbate these symptoms and contribute to the development of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia.
Maintaining a healthy diet is essential for individuals with depression to support their overall well-being. Nutrients obtained from a balanced diet are crucial for proper brain function and the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and emotions.
Effects on the Cardiovascular and Immune Systems
Depression and stress are closely linked, and chronic stress can have detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system. When we experience stress, our bodies release hormones that increase heart rate and constrict blood vessels, putting the body in a prolonged state of emergency. Over time, this can lead to the development of heart disease and increase the risk of cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
Depression can also weaken the immune system, making individuals more vulnerable to infections and diseases. Research suggests a relationship between inflammation and depression, although the exact connection is still not fully understood. Inflammation is associated with various health problems, and some anti-inflammatory agents have shown potential benefits for individuals with depression.
Individuals with depression may also engage in behaviours that further compromise their physical health. Substance misuse, including alcohol and drugs, is common among those with depression and can lead to increased instances of unsafe behaviour. The risk of suicide is also higher in individuals with depression, emphasizing the critical need for appropriate support and intervention.
Depression in Children and Teens
Depression can affect individuals of all ages, including children and teenagers. Recognizing depression in children can be challenging, as they may have difficulty articulating their symptoms. Persistent clinginess, worry, and a reluctance to attend school without improvement over time can be indicators of depression in children. Teenagers, in particular, are susceptible to depression, with a significant number experiencing at least one episode of depression in a given year.
Symptoms of depression in teens may include a notable decline in academic performance, excessive use of social media or computer games, negative changes in behaviour at home or school, and self-harm. It is crucial to provide appropriate support and intervention for children and teenagers experiencing depression to prevent long-term consequences and improve their overall well-being.
The Vicious Cycle of Depression and Physical Health Problems
Depression and physical health problems often exist in a vicious cycle, with each condition exacerbating the other. The physical changes caused by depression, such as insomnia or lack of deep sleep, can weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to physical illnesses. Conversely, physical health conditions can contribute to the development or worsening of depression, further impacting mental well-being.
To break this cycle, it is essential to address both depression and physical health problems simultaneously. Seeking professional help, such as therapy or medication, can significantly improve symptoms of depression and enhance overall well-being. Additionally, adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management techniques can promote physical and mental health.
Seeking Help and Support
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or struggling with their mental health, it is crucial to seek help and support. The following resources are available for immediate assistance:
- Call a crisis helpline such as the Hong Kong Government Suicide Prevention Lifeline at +852 2341 7227
- Reach out to a healthcare professional or your local emergency services for immediate assistance
- There are suicide prevention Apps Available: HERE
Remember, help is available, and you don’t have to face depression or mental health challenges alone. With the right support and treatment, individuals can improve their mental and physical well-being and lead fulfilling lives.
Liz McCaughey & AM Team
MsC, MoC. Member of: ACA, BACP
Please complete the AMindset intake form if you want to start your therapy with an AM team member. Our therapists offer a FREE 20-minute introductory session for new clients.
If you are not quite ready, please click here to subscribe to the AMindset Newsletter with articles and podcasts to learn more about your mental health and how AM can help you.