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Physical Effects of Depression (And What to Do About Them)

Anna attended the University of Baltimore Law School and holds a master's of science in mental health counseling.

The physical side effects of depression

The physical side effects of depression

Understand the Physical Side Effects of Depression

Sadness, which is often related to depression, grief, and trauma can have physical side effects as well as emotional ones. In addition to feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in things that you once enjoyed, when you do not address your sadness, you may experience physical side effects such as sleep problems, loss of energy, changes in your appetite, and even physical pain, explains WebMD.

Included here is a list of some effects depression has on the body, as well as some ways to combat them.

The Effects of Mood on the Body

  1. Sleep Issues
  2. Changes in Energy
  3. Eating Habits
  4. Aches and Pains
Sleep problems are a major physical side effect of depression

Sleep problems are a major physical side effect of depression

1. Sleep Issues

Sadness can create two distinct sleep issues. While some individuals become overly tired and sleep excessively, others suffer from insomnia, have trouble falling asleep, or experience frequent nighttime waking.

Often, persons with depression or sadness may find themselves having trouble falling asleep because they are ruminating on a specific problem or simply feeling overwhelmed. In other cases, individuals with depression wake from nightmares or sleep lightly because they are unable to relax fully. Likewise, when depression causes physical pain such as headaches or body aches, this can impede one's sleep schedule.

Other sleep issues may stem from biological mechanisms in the brain, says Boston University neurology professor Patrick McNamara in “Sleep and Depression,” from Psychology Today.

Solutions for Sleep Problems

Regardless of the type of sleep problem, when you are depressed, you may find yourself feeling exhausted throughout the day, even though you got adequate sleep. Addressing these sleep problems is not always simple, however. In situations where your sleep issues are interfering with your work obligations or social life, your doctor may want to prescribe a short-term sleep aid. Likewise, many antidepressants can help you get a full night's sleep, both because of their sedative properties and their ability to treat underlying mental health problems.

Natural Ways to Sleep Better

In less acute cases of depression, meditation and relaxation exercises before bed can help you clear your mind and help you sleep deeply. Further, 15-30 minutes of exercises prior to bed–such as stretching or walking–can help your body prepare for rest.

In addition, limiting or minimizing caffeine intake may help you get a more restful night's sleep. While a morning cup of coffee may help energize you temporarily after a bad night's rest, drinking caffeinated beverages throughout the day can make nighttime sleep more difficult.

Similarly, while you may feel tempted to take daytime naps after a night of restless sleep, naps can interfere with your body's natural rhythms and make it difficult to maintain a regular sleep schedule. Although you may feel tired, maintaining a regular bedtime–even on weekends–and energizing yourself through exercise may be the best way to recover your energy and develop a better quality of sleep.

A Note About Alcohol

If you are depressed, you may also be tempted to turn to alcohol before bed to help you sleep. While this can be a short-term remedy for sleep problems, this is not a healthy long-term approach. Since alcohol depresses the central nervous system, it can actually make your mood worse. Further, although alcohol can put you to sleep, it can also cause nighttime wakings and–if you drink excessive quantities–lead to both health problems and further physical maladies during the daytime.

Feeling extreme fatigue or large drops in energy levels is a common symptom of depression

Feeling extreme fatigue or large drops in energy levels is a common symptom of depression

2. Changes in Energy

When you are sad, you may find that you do not have the same amount of energy as normal. Part of this might stem from sleep issues, but even if you are not having trouble sleeping, even normal daily tasks such as cleaning or going to work may be exhausting. Likewise, when you are sad, you may have sensations of “heaviness” or may feel physically weak, explains psychiatrist Maurizio Fava in “Fatigue as a Residual Symptom of Depression,” published in Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience.

Although you may not feel motivated to carry out daily tasks, maintaining a regular schedule and setting reasonable, achievable goals for yourself can help you regain your energy. In addition to working on your sleep habits and exercising, encouraging yourself to participate in enjoyable activities can improve your mental state and stimulate chemicals in your brain that will not only help you feel happier, but also give you more energy. For example, even a non-physical activity such as cooking a meal from scratch or watching a funny movie can go a long way to improve your mental state and in turn, give you more energy.

Your dietary habits may also play into your energy problems. For instance, when you are feeling sad or depressed, you may find it easier to choose fast food or snack foods instead of preparing meals. These meals do not always provide adequate nutrition, however.

3. Affected Eating Habits

Changes in your appetite are a common side effect of sadness and depression. Some people become nauseous and queasy even though they are hungry, while others may have little or no appetite at all. This can lead to significant weight loss and the health problems that go along with it, such as inadequate nutrient intake.

Other people who are sad may have an increased appetite and eat excessively. This may lead to sudden weight gain. Generally, medical and mental health professionals consider drastic weight changes to be a gain or loss of at least 10% of your weight over a 30-day period (when you are not consciously trying to change your weight).

How to Combat Overeating

If you struggle with overeating, keeping healthy snacks in your home such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can help you minimize weight gain. Likewise, finding a simple workout regimen, such as 20-minute walks, three times weekly, can help you maintain a healthy weight. Such exercise regimens can also be effective for those who are underweight. By exercising and building muscle mass, you may find that your body craves more foods than before.

Weight Maintenance

For persons struggling to maintain weight, antidepressant medications often increase appetite, which can mitigate the effects of depression-related weight loss. These medications may also help regulate the moods of those who overeat. That said, talk therapy can also be effective for sad or depressed persons who overeat to comfort themselves or persons who have aversions to food. By learning new coping strategies and ways of viewing problems, people can learn to avoid unhealthy habits, such as binge eating or skipping meals.

Depression puts stress on your brain, which puts stress on various other parts of the body

Depression puts stress on your brain, which puts stress on various other parts of the body

4. Unexplained Aches and Pains

Unaddressed sadness often causes numerous physical pains that have no other medical explanation. For instance, you might experience headaches, backaches, muscle tightness, or chest pains. ­These physical pains often stem from the biological origins of sadness, namely, the poor regulation of neurotransmitters in the brain. Because some of the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of sadness are also connected to our ability to feel pain, when sadness stems from a chemical imbalance of the brain, aches and pains are a common side effect, explains Madhukar H. Trivedi, M.D. in “The Link Between Depression and Physical Symptoms,” published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Talk to Your Doctor

Because physical illnesses and diseases can also cause depression, it is important to get a full physical examination if you are having unexplained pain or soreness. Once your doctor rules out an underlying medical cause for your pain, he or she can determine the best means of pain relief. For depression-related pain, improving your mood, rather than treating the short-term symptoms may be the best course of action. While your doctor may prescribe pain medication for immediate use, he may also suggest other strategies such as specific exercise regimens, such as yoga, or other exercise-based therapies.

Overall, if you are struggling with any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is recommended you talk to a professional.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Sheetal on December 20, 2014:

Well given so many young people who have eiehtr attempted or were successful suicide isn't a new problem. I just want teens of today to realize teens of yesterday, or yester- decade+ endured the same thing. Fortunately my friend lived to regret her attempt find true love and have a beautiful daughter, but so many others as you know don't. Just doing my little part to get the word out. Thanks Katie, enjoy your Sunday.