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How Depression Affects Your Body


Elizabeth Hanes, RN

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Worried Woman Waiting

Many people understand depression as an emotional illness—a condition that causes feelings of sadness and hopelessness. This description is accurate. What you may not realize is depression also can cause physical symptoms unrelated to “feelings.” Here are some of the key physical effects depression can have on your body–and what steps you can take to address them.

1. Tiredness

People with depression often complain of a near-complete lack of energy. Not only do they experience mental fuzziness and an inability to muster the mental energy required to complete tasks like writing an email, but they also may experience physical tiredness. Researchers haven’t pinpointed why depression can trigger fatigue, but it is a key physical symptom of depression. Because Vitamin D has been implicated in depression, getting outdoors for some sunshine and a brisk walk may help you overcome the tiredness aspect of the condition.

2. Unexplained Pain

Chronic headaches and unexplained back pain can be a symptom of depression. Depression 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 treatment includes addressing any pain issues you may be experiencing. Some antidepressant medications work on both mood and physical pain.

3. Gastrointestinal Upset

One study revealed that many patients with depression actually present initially with physical symptoms like nausea or diarrhea. If you have been diagnosed with depression and find you develop a “nervous stomach,” you may be experiencing the effects of depression on your intestinal tract. When episodes of diarrhea strike, it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking water. You also should strive for a balanced diet that includes plenty of fiber, with fresh fruits and vegetables.

4. Sleep Disturbance

You might think falling asleep is one of the most natural things a human being can do, but sleeping is actually a fairly complex process that involves a variety of hormones acting on the brain. In depression, the disruption of these neurotransmitters can make it difficult to doze off or stay asleep. To help your body fall asleep, try going to bed (and rising) at the same time every day, avoiding the computer or television for an hour before bed, and creating a restful bedroom environment to help you maximize your Zs.

5. Weakened Immune System

Research is ongoing, but the current literature supports the idea that depression can cause immune system dysfunction. People who are depressed often have elevated levels of stress hormones in their system. Stress hormones cause inflammation, which in turn 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 against getting sick, such as by washing your hands frequently or getting a flu shot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 8% of people over age 12 in the United States report current depression. If you have depression, be aware of the many physical effects this psychological condition can have on your body. You should not hesitate to discuss these symptoms with your doctor so you can work together on a plan to maximize your overall well-being.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jan 20, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).  Mayo Clinic
  2. QuickStats: Prevalence of Current Depression* Among Persons Aged ≥12 Years, by Age Group and Sex — United States, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2007–2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.;%20United%20States,%20N...
  3. Trivedi, MH. The Link between Depression and Physical Symptoms. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004; 6(suppl 1): 12–16.
  4. Penckofer, S, et al. Vitamin D and Depression: Where is All the Sunshine? Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2010 Jun; 31(6): 385–393.
  5. Reiche, EMV, et al. Stress, depression, the immune system and cancer. The Lancet Oncology. 2004; Vol 5 No 10: 617-625.

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