Depression is a mental health condition that affects millions of men and women around the world. It is characterised by feelings of sadness, loss of interest, hopelessness, and other symptoms that can affect a person’s ability to function in daily life.
While depression is typically thought of as a mental health issue, it can also be an indicator of underlying health problems.
In this article, we’ll explore in what ways depression can indicate underlying health problems and what you can do to address these issues.
Depression is a significant public health issue around the world, with a high prevalence of the condition across all strata of the population.
For example, in Australia, according to a National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2022, some 8.6 million Australians aged between 16 and 85 people had suffered from a mental disorder at some point during their life.
Symptoms of depression
Depression is a mental health condition that can cause a range of symptoms that affect a person’s mood, behaviour, and overall functioning.
Symptoms of depression can vary from person to person, but commonly include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in once enjoyable activities
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
- Restlessness or slowed movements and speech
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or muscle pain
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
It’s important to note that not everyone with depression will experience all of these symptoms, and some people may have symptoms that are not listed here as well.
Additionally, symptoms can vary in severity and duration, with some people experiencing mild or temporary symptoms while others may have more severe or long-lasting effects.
Depression and Physical Health
Depression is often thought of as a mental health issue, but it can also be linked to physical health problems.
For example, studies have shown that people with depression are more likely to have a range of physical health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
One possible explanation for this link is that depression can lead to changes in behavior that increase the risk of these health problems.
For example, people with depression may be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating an unhealthy diet.
These behaviors can increase the risk of developing a range of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
Another possible explanation is that depression and physical health problems share common underlying factors. For example, chronic inflammation has been linked to both depression and heart disease.
Depression and physical health problems may be both manifestations of underlying inflammation in the body.
Here are some examples of some of the most typical physical health problems that can be linked to depression.
- Thyroid Problems
The thyroid is a gland in the neck that produces hormones that regulate metabolism. When the thyroid produces too little hormone (a condition known as hypothyroidism), it can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
Studies have shown that people with hypothyroidism are more likely to experience depression than people without the condition. In some cases, treating hypothyroidism can improve symptoms of depression.
It’s important to note that depression can also be a symptom of hyperthyroidism (when the thyroid produces too much hormone). In this case, treating hyperthyroidism can help to alleviate symptoms of depression.
- Vitamin Deficiencies
Vitamin deficiencies may also be linked to depression. For example, studies have shown that people with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to experience depression than people with normal levels of it.
Other vitamins that have been linked to depression include B vitamins (especially B12), vitamin C, and vitamin E. These vitamins play important roles in brain function and mood regulation, so it’s not surprising that deficiencies can lead to depression.
- Protein Deficiency
Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a critical role in the functioning of the body, including the brain. A lack of adequate protein in the diet can have various health consequences, including depression.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are building blocks for many important neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine.
These neurotransmitters are responsible for regulating mood, and a deficiency in amino acids can lead to imbalances in their production and function, which can result in symptoms of depression.
Additionally, proteins also play a role in the body’s immune system, and a lack of protein can increase inflammation, which has been linked to the development of depression.
Inflammation triggers the release of cytokines, which are proteins that promote inflammation in the body. Cytokines can affect brain function and lead to changes in mood and behavior.
A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that a deficiency in dietary protein was associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms in women. The study also found that increasing protein intake helped improve symptoms of depression.
It’s important to note that protein deficiency is not the only cause of depression, and it is often a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of the condition.
Nonetheless, ensuring adequate protein intake as part of a balanced diet can be an important step in maintaining good mental health and preventing depression.
On the other hand, there are metabolic health conditions like PKU which require a diet that is low in protein. Some research suggests that depression is higher amongst people with PKU, compared to the general population. Click here to learn more.
- Sleep Disorders
Sleep disorders is another condition that may have a causal link to depression. Studies have shown that people with insomnia are more likely to experience depression than people without the condition. In some cases, treating insomnia can improve symptoms of depression.
Similarly, sleep apnea (a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep) has also been linked to depression. This link may be due to the fact that sleep apnea can lead to daytime fatigue, which can also contribute to depression.
- Chronic pain
Studies have shown that people with chronic pain are more likely to experience depression than people without chronic pain.
This link may be because chronic pain can affect a person’s quality of life, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Chronic pain can also disrupt sleep, which can serve to accentuate symptoms of depression.
While depression is usually linked to mental illness, it can often be an indicator of underlying health problems.
Whether it is down to your chronic illness, chronic pain, or other health conditions, it is important for individuals who experience symptoms of depression to seek help from a mental health professional for assessment and treatment.
At the end of the day, addressing underlying health problems can not only help alleviate symptoms of depression but can also improve overall health and well-being.
This can be done through a range of strategies including lifestyle changes, medications, psychotherapy and non-invasive surgical procedures.
So, it is well worth taking the first step to achieving a better overall state of mind and health.