Can Depression Make You Feel Physically Sick?
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Depression is often associated with symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness and loss of interest. However, it can also physically affect individuals.
Physical Symptoms of Depression
While depression is a mental health disorder, it can also affect a person’s physical well-being. This may result from the stress of mental and emotional symptoms, such as persistent sadness or brain fog. However, many experience physical symptoms that directly impact their bodies due to changes in hormones or the brain.
See Related: Can depression kill you?
People with depression often feel physically and mentally exhausted. Depression directly causes tiredness and low energy, but individuals also face fatigue due to sleep issues and physical aches. Mental fatigue may result from difficulties concentrating, lack of sleep or the psychological toll of dealing with frequent sadness or hopelessness. Both physical and mental exhaustion can present as feeling too tired to carry out daily activities or connect with others.
Aches & Pains
Depression and pain are interconnected and can cause or exacerbate the other. This is likely due to dysregulation in the brain. The body’s response to pain is regulated by serotonin and norepinephrine, which also impact mood.
Pain caused by depression may present as:
- Muscle tension and pain
- Joint, limb and back pain
- Breast tenderness
For some, this disorder can lead to chronic pain and inflammation, increasing their risk for diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
People dealing with depression face different sleep issues. Some may sleep more each day but not feel rested. Others may experience insomnia, where they have problems falling and staying asleep. These sleep disruptions are linked to drops in serotonin and cause fatigue that exacerbates other symptoms.
Depression is known to cause many gastrointestinal concerns, including:
- Stomach aches
- Changes in appetite
The link between GI issues and mental health may be even more complicated. Research has indicated that GI issues predict depression later in life.
Unexplained weight fluctuations are common with this disorder. Weight loss may be due to appetite changes caused by a drop in serotonin or fatigue. Other individuals experience weight gain because of low physical activity and emotional eating.
Cardiovascular Side Effects
Individuals with depression are at an increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular disorders. This is partly because depression increases the risk of blood clots and lowers heart rate variability, both associated with negative health outcomes. Secondary impacts include an increased risk for hypertension for those using antidepressants.
Weakened Immune System
Exhaustion, sleep disruptions, poor nutrition and continued stress from depression weaken the immune system. Increased cortisol levels caused by stress lead to inflammation and lower white blood cell counts. These both indicate the immune system isn’t functioning.
Treating the Physical Symptoms of Depression
Treatment plans are unique to each individual. Your doctor can help determine your best course of action. Treatment for depression may include therapy, antidepressants, stress management and medications for additional symptoms.
Different OTC medications may be used to help with physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle pain, indigestion or nausea. However, research indicates an increased risk of brain hemorrhaging for individuals taking antidepressants and NSAIDs painkillers (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen. Before taking any medications, talk to your healthcare provider. Discuss your symptoms, other medications and additional health conditions.
Depression and stress are interconnected. Stress can trigger a depressive episode, exacerbate symptoms and hinder the ability to cope. Effective stress management can help your physical and emotional well-being as you navigate depression.
- Prioritize sleep
- Eat nutrient-rich food
- Take breaks from work
- Limit caffeine or alcohol consumption
- Move your body — shake out your extremities, go for a walk, dance for one minute
- Schedule activities that help you recharge — hanging out with a friend, gardening, reading a book
You have options when it comes to antidepressants. It may take trial and error while you and your doctor work to find the right one for you. When you start a new antidepressant, it typically takes a few weeks for your body to regulate.
The antidepressants recommended for depression treatment by the American Psychological Association include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Norepinephrine/dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs)
Talk therapies help develop and strengthen coping skills and address underlying concerns such as trauma, grief, adjustment difficulties and other stressors. The American Psychological Association identified several types of therapy for depression treatment based on the individual’s age, symptoms and health concerns. These therapy options include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Psychodynamic Therapy
- Supportive Therapy
- Cognitive Therapy
- Behavioral Therapy
When To Seek Help
Depression is unique to each person in length, severity and symptom presentation. However, there are common signs that it’s time to seek help. These warning signs include:
- Inability to complete daily tasks
- Thoughts of suicide or death or attempted suicide
- Self-harm or thoughts of self-harm
- Physical aches and pains (headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, back pain)
- Overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, hopelessness or emptiness
- Using substances or alcohol to cope
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in mood or feeling agitated
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, the suicide and crisis lifeline is available at 988 by call or text.
Depression can feel overwhelming, but help is available.
If you’re looking for support, try the Nobu app. You’ll find free tools to help you cope and manage stress. These include guided lessons, mindfulness activities and more. For an extra fee, you can also connect with a licensed therapist for teletherapy. Download it today in the Google Play store or Apple Store.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
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- Coryell, William. “Depressive Disorders.” MSD Manual for the Professional, 2022. Accessed September 21, 2022.
- Lee, S.P., et al. “The Effect of Emotional Stress and Depression on the Prevalence of Digestive Diseases.” Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2022.
- Licht, C. M. M., et al. “Depression Is Associated With Decreased Blood Pressure, but Antidepressant Use Increases the Risk for Hypertension.” Hypertension, 2009. Accessed September 21, 2022.
- Liu, L. et al. “Transient Gastric Irritation in the Neonatal Rats Leads to Changes in Hypothalamic CRF Expression, Depression- and Anxiety-Like Behavior as Adults.” PLoS ONE, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2022.
- Shin, J.-Y., et al. “Risk of intracranial haemorrhage in antidepressant users with concurrent use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: nationwide propensity score matched study.” BMJ, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2022.
- Trivedi, M. H. “The Link Between Depression and Physical Symptoms.” Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2004. Accessed September 21, 2022.