Depression is a common mental health disorder that can affect you emotionally and physically. It creates a whole-body experience, which makes depression incredibly debilitating for anyone living with and experiencing it.
This article will examine the common physical symptoms of depression and their causes, as well as treatments for the emotional and physical symptoms.
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Depression is a complex and multifactorial mood disorder. There are many forms of depressive disorders that can range from mild to severe.
However, there are some common features of all forms of depression, which include sadness, feelings of emptiness, guilt, anxiety, stress, irritable mood, and lack of or complete inability to feel and experience pleasure in response to positive events.
Unfortunately, depression can cause emotional and physical symptoms. The combination of emotional and physical symptoms is likely to increase the duration and severity of depressive episodes, especially when left untreated. Therefore, early diagnosis and prompt treatment are important in the recovery from depression and its symptoms.
Common causes include:
Brain chemistry: Low levels or the dysfunction of the chemicals in the brain. Specifically, the neurotransmitters glutamate, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine may increase your susceptibility to depression.
A personal history of depression, mood disorders, and eating disorders
Suffering from a serious chronic illness: Diabetes, epilepsy, obesity, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer are risk factors.
A family history of depression and genes: Those with relatives suffering from or who have suffered from depression have a significantly greater probability of developing depression than the general population.
Stressful life events: People who have suffered trauma, abuse, divorce, or the death of a close loved one are at an increased risk of developing depression.
Gender: Women are two to three times more likely to develop depression compared to men.
Age: Individuals aged 18–29 are three times as likely to experience depression than those outside of this age range.
Social factors: Low socioeconomic status, low income, financial difficulties, unemployment or job insecurity, low education levels, lack of social support, and loneliness can all increase your risk.
Depression increases the risk of physical illness in almost every system in the body. In many cases, the physical symptoms of depression may be mistaken as a physical disorder or illness rather than an emotional one.
This confusion increases the risk of undiagnosed and untreated depression, leading to even more severe health complications. It is important to understand that depression can affect the mind and the physical body.
The physical symptoms of depression include:
Aches and pains are believed to be the most common physical symptom of depression. The pain is usually felt as back, joint, or muscle pain. Pain caused by depression can range from mild to severe, with this study¹ suggesting that the worse an individual’s aches and pains are, the more severe the depression.
The dysregulation of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain is a possible biological cause of the physical pain experienced in depression.
It is thought that depression and stress hormones² can affect gut sensitivity, gastric emptying, and the movement of your GI tract and cause an increase in stomach acid production, which can all lead to gastrointestinal upset. In some severe cases, depression and stress may lead to gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
Recent studies³ have shown that depression may also impact the development and growth of the “good bacteria” in the gut. These bacteria help to keep you well and your immune system strong — without them, you may be more prone to illness and infection.
Depression can cause an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which in some cases can lead to high blood pressure and increased heart rate. High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, or heart attack.
According to this study,⁴ high blood pressure may also stem from poor blood pressure management due to a loss of interest in following treatment plans.
Most individuals with depression will have trouble sleeping. This can range from struggling to fall asleep, waking often in the night, sleeping too little, or sleeping too much.
Impaired sleep may be related to the dysfunction of certain areas and chemicals in the brain. The chemicals may be activated or deactivated at inappropriate times, affecting sleep. Consequently, a lack of sleep has a flow-on effect and can worsen your depressive symptoms.
This study⁵ shows that an increase in stress hormones and impaired sleep can suppress the immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off invaders, pathogens, and tumor cells by decreasing the level of active immune cells in the body.
This can cause you to become sick more often and for longer periods. The study concludes that the more severe the depression, the higher the reduction in immune cells.
Fatigue is a common physical symptom of depression and differs from everyday fatigue. Although sleep problems may be part of the reason for fatigue, depression fatigue cannot be cured by sleeping or resting more — it is thought to be much more complex than this. The dysfunction of dopamine and norepinephrine could be a contributing factor to depression-related fatigue.
Your depression diagnosis will likely begin with your doctor enquiring about your symptoms. You must have experienced your symptoms for at least two weeks for the doctor to diagnose you with depression.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) lists nine symptoms of depression. Five of these must be present to diagnose, with at least one of the symptoms being a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure.
The nine symptoms are:
Guilty feelings or thoughts of worthlessness
To confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may also undertake the following:
Lab tests and a physical exam
Investigate your past medical history, family medical history, and current medications
Medication, both prescribed and over-the-counter, psychotherapy (cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy), and non-clinical treatments can help to relieve emotional and physical depression symptoms.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants. Antidepressants help to target the pathways that mediate both pain and depression in the brain and in the spinal cord, which helps to ease physical symptoms.
Over-the-counter medications such as anti-inflammatories may also be useful in relieving pain from physical symptoms. However, it’s important to talk to your doctor first about the best over-the-counter medications to help alleviate symptoms.
Electroconvulsive therapy may be used for patients with severe depression or those who are suicidal or not responding to medications. ECT is seen to relieve and treat symptoms of depression much more quickly than medication.
CBT is a psychotherapy that includes mindfulness training, behavioral strategies, restructuring the way you think to change or restrict automatic negative thoughts, and changing repeated behaviors that may have contributed to depression.
IPT is also psychotherapy that is effective in the treatment of depression. The main goal of IPT is to improve the quality of a client’s interpersonal relationships or relationships with others.
Exercise has been proven to be effective in helping to treat depression. Even a simple walk around the block can do wonders for your health. Other calm exercises you can try include yoga, stretching, and tai chi.
Try meditation and practicing deep breathing.
Massage may help to relieve physical pain.
Limit or reduce your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
Avoid illicit drugs and smoking.
Spend time with your loved ones.
Listen to music. Music can improve feelings of positivity and mood.
Journaling and writing down how you feel may also be useful.
If you are experiencing the main symptoms of depressive disorder on most days for at least two weeks, then you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. If you have persistent thoughts about suicide or are feeling suicidal, seek medical attention immediately.
In countless ways, depression can indeed make you physically sick. If you believe you are suffering from depression or are unsure of how you are feeling, it’s important to speak to your doctor, as treating your symptoms sooner rather than later can help lead to a quicker recovery. Your doctor will be able to help you find the treatment that is right for you.
Being emotionally upset may trigger feelings of stress in your body and activate the stress response. Stress hormones such as cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline may be released into the blood. This can cause your heart rate to go up, increase blood pressure, and cause a change to your gut motility, which can give you a feeling of nausea or wanting to throw up.
Depression during pregnancy, also known as perinatal depression, is one of the most common medical complications of pregnancy. Perinatal depression can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol, smoking, using harmful drugs, skipping prenatal checkups, not eating properly, not gaining enough or gaining too much weight, or not following instructions from your healthcare provider.
If left untreated, perinatal depression may lead to miscarriage, delivering before the due date, giving birth to a small baby, or postpartum depression.