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Can Depression Make You Sick?

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It’s pretty common to think of physical and mental illnesses as entirely separate. But what if they’re more connected than you realize? Maybe you’ve noticed that your body feels off when your mood is low, but you brush it off, thinking it’s all in your head — especially when the world around you doesn’t quite see what you’re going through. But here’s the thing: the physical impact of depression is real. It’s not just an imagination or an overreaction. If you’re feeling physically unwell alongside feelings of depression, it’s not something to ignore or downplay. It’s your body telling you that something might need more attention.

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Depression is not only a mental condition; it can manifest physically, making your body feel sick, too. Your mental and physical health connection is more significant than you might realize.

  • Bi-directional communication: Your brain and body constantly send signals to each other. When you’re experiencing depression, your brain relays distress signals that can manifest physically in your body.
  • Stress hormones: Depression often activates the body’s stress response, releasing hormones like cortisol. This hormonal shift can affect various bodily systems, from your immune function to your digestive system.
  • Neurotransmitter imbalance: Depression is linked to imbalances in neurotransmitters, the brain’s chemical messengers. These imbalances can influence mood, pain perception, sleep patterns, and appetite.
  • Psychosomatic symptoms: It’s common for psychological distress to produce physical symptoms. For instance, the anxiety and stress associated with depression can lead to headaches, muscle tension, or gastrointestinal issues.

Depression’s Impact on the Immune System

Depression can weaken your immune system. This suppression makes it harder for your body to fight off infections, increasing the risk of getting sick.

Long-term depression can lead to chronic inflammation in your body. Inflammation is a natural immune response, but when constant, it can contribute to various health issues, from heart disease to arthritis.

The stress hormones released due to depression, like cortisol, can alter the functioning of immune cells. High levels of these hormones can disrupt the normal immune response, making your body more prone to infections and slower to recover from illnesses.

Research on Depression and Immunity

Numerous studies have supported the link between depression and impaired immune function. Research has shown that people with depression may have lower levels of certain white blood cells, a key component in the body’s immune defense.

Further research indicates that people with depression may experience more frequent illnesses and longer recovery times due to this weakened immune response.

Inflammation and Depression

Inflammation is not only a result of depression but can also contribute to its onset and severity. This creates a cycle where depression leads to inflammation, which in turn exacerbates depression.

Common Physical Illnesses Linked to Depression

Here are some common diseases that are often linked with depression:

  • Cardiovascular disease: People with depression may experience higher rates of heart disease due to factors like increased stress hormones, changes in blood vessel function, and unhealthy lifestyle habits that can accompany depression.
  • Diabetes: There’s a two-way relationship between depression and diabetes. Depression can influence the management of diabetes, while the stress of managing a chronic illness like diabetes can contribute to depression.
  • Chronic pain conditions: Depression can exacerbate the perception of pain. Conditions like arthritis, back pain, and migraine can feel more intense for those with depression.
  • Gut-brain axis: This bi-directional communication system between your gut and brain plays a significant role in gastrointestinal health and mood regulation. Depression can disrupt this system, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort and symptoms.

The Effect of Depression on Pain Perception

Depression can lower your threshold for pain. This means you might experience pain more intensely or become more sensitive to physical discomfort. Aches and pains that others might find minor could feel more severe if you’re dealing with depression.

If you have chronic pain conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, or chronic back pain, depression can exacerbate these conditions. The intensity and frequency of pain can increase, and your ability to cope with this pain can decrease.

Depression affects neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are also involved in pain regulation. An imbalance in these chemicals can enhance pain sensations.

Additionally, depression can manifest physically, leading to psychosomatic symptoms – where emotional distress causes physical pain. This type of pain is real and not just “in your head,” even though it originates from emotional states.

Interplay Between Depression and Pain

The relationship between pain and depression is often cyclical. Chronic pain can trigger depression, and in turn, depression can make the experience of pain more intense.

This heightened perception of pain can significantly affect your ability to engage in daily activities, work, and enjoy life.

Addressing Pain in Depression

Managing depression effectively can help in reducing the perception of pain. Treatments like antidepressants can not only alleviate mood symptoms but also help in pain management.

Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, somatic therapy, and breathwork can help manage pain by altering your perception of pain and enhancing your coping skills.

Discuss pain symptoms with your health care provider. They can help you navigate both the mental and physical aspects of depression and pain, offering a comprehensive approach to treatment.

When to Seek Help for Depression and Physical Illness

You should seek help when:

  • Depression or physical symptoms persist or worsen.
  • Symptoms significantly disrupt your daily life or self-care routines.
  • There’s difficulty managing health conditions alongside depression warrants medical attention.
  • You have thoughts of self-harm or severe hopelessness.

The connection between your mind and body is powerful and real.

Listen to your body and acknowledge how depression might be affecting you physically.

The physical symptoms are as important as your emotional well-being, whether it’s unexplained aches, changes in sleep patterns, or a general feeling of being unwell.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, both for your mental health and for any physical symptoms you’re experiencing.

Getty image by damircudic

Originally published: November 16, 2023
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