How Depression Affects Your Body

by Francine Kanter

Depression is a brain disorder that can cause much emotional anguish. The brain, in many ways, acts like the boss of your body. Changes in brain chemistry can have a major effect on your body, which makes depression a physical disorder. It is no wonder that it contributes to a wide array of physical problems, affecting everything from heart to immune system. Not only does it cause physical symptoms, it can also increase the risk for certain physical illnesses or conditions. In turn, illness can trigger depression.

Depression affects much more than moods. These are a few of the most common physical symptoms:

Increased aches and pains (occurring in approximately two out of three people)

Chronic fatigue

Decreased interest in sex

Decreased appetite

Insomnia, lack of deep sleep, or oversleeping

Depression increases your risk of disease and other negative conditions. One way it does this is by increasing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol or adrenaline. Depression can affect the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight infection. Vaccinations are even less effective in people with depression. It has also been linked to heart disease and increased risk for substance abuse.

Depression and medical illness is a vicious cycle. Many of the physical changes caused by depression, such as insomnia or a lack of deep sleep, further weaken the immune system. This can make existing illnesses worse. In turn, physical changes caused either by depression or chronic disease can trigger or worsen depression. All changes can lead to a vicious cycle that’s tough to break without treatment for both the depression as well as the other disease(s).

Once you become ill, how does depression influence the course of disease? For one, it is more likely to develop complications. This may be because depression magnifies physical changes in the brain and body. If you already have heart disease, for example, higher levels of stress hormones may make it harder for the body to do needed tissue repair. Depression may also make it more difficult to follow instructions, take medications or stick with other aspects of a treatment regimen. Pain, which is common with depression, can also complicate the treatment of same. This means people with chronic pain tend to have worse depression outcomes.

How to Treat Depression Naturally

1. Consider why you might feel depressed. Sometimes depression is a symptom of something circumstantial in your life rather than a biochemical imbalance. Does your job require you to sell out your integrity every day? Have you been unable to admit that you need to end your marriage? Are you feeling spiritually disconnected or sexually restless? Are you suffering from creative blocks? Is your body failing you? Are you facing financial ruin? Be honest with yourself about what might be off-kilter in your life, and make an effort to get to the root of why you might be feeling depressed.

2. Move your body. Exercise releases happy-making endorphins which act like natural antidepressants.

3. Never skip a meal. Keeping your blood sugar stable reduces mood swings.

4. Eat a serotonin-enhancing diet. Many antidepressants, like Prozac, act by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin by receptors in the brain, thereby increasing serotonin levels. But you can increase your brain’s serotonin levels by eating foods that boost levels naturally.

Serotonin-enhancing foods include those high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, turkey, and anchovies, which are even higher in omega-3s than other fish), nuts and seeds, coconut oil, tofu, pineapple, cheese, eggs.

Eat a high protein diet, especially proteins high in tryptophan, like free range turkey.

5. Avoid caffeine which reduces serotonin levels. If you need an energy boost, supplement with L-Tyrosine (500-1000mg).

6. Expose yourself to sunlight which can boost mood and increase Vitamin D levels. If you live somewhere that gets little sun, invest in a therapeutic light box.

7. Try mood-enhancing supplements: 5-HTP 50-300mg, up to three times/day; start at 50mg in the morning. Converts directly into serotonin. If you are taking too much, you will feel sleepy or have runny stools. Also, may help with anxiety, although sometimes it can paradoxically cause anxiety. Must use with great caution if you’re taking an antidepressant.

St. John’s Wort 300mg, three times/day. If you don’t feel better within a week, slowly increase dose to a max of 600mg three times/day. May decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills.

SAMe 200mg on an empty stomach, twice/day. Increase your dose every two weeks to a maximum dose of 600mg, twice daily. This can be a very effective antidepressant, but it can also be expensive. Side effects at higher doses include GI upset, nausea, agitation and insomnia.

L-Theanine 100-600mg daily. Reduce if you feel sleepy. Found in green tea.

Fish oil (DHA/EPA) 1-3g/day with food.

(Disclaimer: Although you can get these supplements over the counter, I recommend doing this under the care of a physician since supplements can have side effects and risks and can interact with other medications.)

8. Meditate or try guided imagery. Meditation’s effects on mood are well documented. Settling your mind can lift your mood, in addition to a whole host of other health benefits.

9. Get your hormones balanced. If your thyroid, adrenal or sex hormones are out of whack, your mood can get all wonky. See a good integrative medicine doctor and ask them to order and interpret the following tests:

Thyroid gland tests—TSH, free T4, free T3, total T3, thyroid antibodies

Adrenal gland tests—cortisol, DHEA-S, pregnenolone

Sex hormone tests—estradiol, progesterone, free and total testosterone

10. Make efforts to bolster your mental health by being more authentic in all aspects of your life. Too often, we walk around wearing masks, pretending to be something we’re not. We fake it at the schoolyard, in the boardroom, in the bedroom, at church—and then wonder why we wind up depressed. Practice letting your freak flag fly and watch how your mood lifts.

11. Talk it out. See a therapist, psychiatrist or life coach and express how you feel. Sometimes, just finding someone you trust, who will help you work through your feelings, can make all the difference in the universe.

Sometimes, you can do everything right, but your imbalance is biochemical, so you still may need the drugs. But don’t forget to nurture the rest of you too. Depression, like most physical and mental illnesses, is multifactorial and requires a global investigation of your complete health—not just your mind and body, but your relationships, your work, your financial picture, how you express yourself creatively, how you satisfy yourself sexually.

Treating depression, improving health. By now, we know and understand that physical and mental health perform a delicate dance, greatly affecting each other. Always discuss both with your health care professional. The symptoms of depression and diseases may overlap, so make sure that your mental health professional coordinates depression treatment with your other health care providers.

Now, for additional good news: Depression treatment is often a two-fer—by treating the depression, you not only relieve it, but also may be improving your overall health. There are different alternative medicine modalities to treat depression, one of which is homeopathy, used successfully for a hundred years. Homeopathy treats the mind and the body as a whole and, in turn, lifts depression and improves physical symptoms along the way.

Francine Kanter, CCH, RsHOM (NA), Board Certified Homeopath Practitioner, has helped countless adults and children in their return to health. For more information and to make an appointment, call 754-484-7988 (office), 808-652-2001 (cell), email [email protected] or visit FKanterHomeopath.com.

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