The Health Implications of Depression

Updated on April 5, 2018
Michelle Tram profile image

Michelle hopes to spread awareness of stigmatized health topics through her research and experience working with disadvantaged families.

Beyond merely a feeling of sadness, as is the common misconception towards this mental disorder, depression accompanies grave physical symptoms. Children, adolescents, and adults who are plagued by depression fear the stigma of this disease, further perpetuating the dilemma in which they refuse to request medical attention, although such action is crucial.

What are the causes of depression?

Depression isn't a choice, but stigma and ignorance are.

— Matt Haig

Significant Health Repercussions

Failure to receive proper medical treatment will prolong health predicaments and negatively affect many body systems.

Diabetes/Eating Disorders

Scientists have noticed strong associations between depressed subjects and the development of diabetes mellitus, with depression increasing the risks of having type 2 diabetes in the future by 60% (Bădescu et al., 2016). This positive correlation is possibly due to adverse methods of coping, often overeating, that the individual sees as the only viable solutions to filling the mass void of emotional security. In addition, binge-eating as well as other eating disorders frequently accompany depression and exacerbate feelings of shame. While binge-eating may lead to obesity due to consumption of excess calories, bulimia nervosa is another dangerous eating disorder that involves binge-eating, but which is then followed by deliberate purging commonly through the use of laxatives or diuretics, or by self-induced vomiting. Excessive vomiting or diarrhea results in depletion of important electrolytes such as potassium, which is essential for the proper functioning of the heart and muscles (“Health Consequences”, 2018). Strained heart beating consequently falters into death.

A short interview on singer/actress Demi Lovato's eating disorder

Furthermore, depression can impact those already afflicted with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Feelings of hopelessness from depression will only delay diagnosis and interfere with treatment. Thus, as the depression intensifies, anorexia nervosa becomes worse as well, putting the individuals in greater health risk as they fail to consume vital food groups. Thus it is evermore important that the subject consciously make a deliberate effort to ensure the body’s adequate intake of nutrients such as minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and amino acids.

The five vital food groups
The five vital food groups

Lack of Iron

As a result of poor eating habits due to depression, intake of all the required minerals including iron through diet is often inadequate. Iron plays a crucial role in hemoglobin synthesis in red blood cells through erythropoiesis. Thus those afflicted with depression can experience a low level of red blood cells that limits athletic performance and day-to-day physical tasks and interferes with learning processes in children (Harper, 2018).

Lack of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

An important component of the human brain is lipids, or fats. However, because the body cannot synthesize these necessary fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid, the body must obtain such through consuming fish and specific plants. The alpha-linolenic acid is converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which is subsequently converted into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This DHA is the main constituent for the glycerophospholipids in the cell membrane (Rao, et al., 2008). However, such biochemical conversion is extremely inefficient, and thus the body relies more heavily on dietary sources for EPA and DHA (Maslin, 2013). Therefore, those diagnosed with depression and suffer from poor eating habits will have a hard time obtaining these essential fatty acids and hence negatively affect the functioning of their brains.

The process of tryptophan synthesis into serotonin
The process of tryptophan synthesis into serotonin

Lack of Essential Amino Acids

Without amino acids, the body is unable to synthesize neurotransmitters that are important in neuron-to-neuron signalling. For example, insufficient consumption of the amino acid tryptophan will significantly reduce the amount of serotonin (Gibson and Blass, 1999). This is turn will cause a lower level of melatonin being synthesized in the brain. Since melatonin plays a key role in the regulation of normal cyclical sleep patterns, natural sleep rhythm is therefore disrupted (Dubuc, 2002).

The sleep cycle can be broken down into two basic stages: NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement).
The sleep cycle can be broken down into two basic stages: NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and REM (Rapid Eye Movement).

Effect on Sleep

In addition to the lack of necessary amino acids, depression augments the amount of stress felt by the individual which in turn interferes with the body's secretion of growth hormones. First, depression causes the individual to make choices based on an “All or Nothing” perspective, in which reality is distorted and the gravity of the perceived problem is amplified greater than they truly are. This, in turn, increases production of stress hormones as the individual is conflicted on whether to “fight or flight” (Elliott and Tyrrell, 2018). Thus the body, in efforts to reduce such stress, attempts to undergo a longer dreaming period. However, this dream can only be achieved by skipping the initial NREM stages into a longer REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep stage earlier on in the cycle. Consequently, a great portion of the cycle in which human growth hormones are released is skipped (Popova, 2012). Hence the interrupted secretion of growth hormones leads to more overall exhaustion.

More stress, more dream, more exhaustion

In conclusion, because of its many detrimental health effects on the body, depression must be emphasized as a medical illness rather than a social stigma to ensure its early diagnosis and thus effective treatment.

References

Bădescu, SV et al. “The Association between Diabetes Mellitus and Depression .” Journal of Medicine and Life 9.2 (2016): 120–125. Print.

Dubuc, Bruno. “MOLECULES THAT BUILD UP AND MAKE YOU SLEEP.” THE BRAIN FROM TOP TO BOTTOM, 2002, thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_11/d_11_m/d_11_m_cyc/d_11_m_cyc.html.

Gibson, Gary E. “Nutrition and Functional Neurochemistry.” Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. 6th Edition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1999, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK28242/.

Harper, James L. “Iron Deficiency Anemia.” Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology, 23 Feb. 2018, emedicine.medscape.com/article/202333-overview#a1.

“Health Consequences.” National Eating Disorders Association, 22 Feb. 2018, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.

Maslin, Kate. “Latest on NutriLibrary.” What Are Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids?, 1 July 2013, www.nutricia.ie/nutrilibrary/view/what_are_long_chain_polyunsaturated_fatty_acids.

Popova, Maria. “Dreaming, Depression, and How Sleep Affects Emotions.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 13 Aug. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/08/dreaming-depression-and-how-sleep-affects-emotions/261051/.

Rao, T. S. Sathyanarayana, et al. “Understanding Nutrition, Depression and Mental Illnesses.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Medknow Publications, 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/.

Tyrrell, Mark, and Roger Elliott. “Medical Causes of Depression.” Clinical Depression.co.uk, 13 Oct. 2014,

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    • Laura335 profile image

      Laura Smith 6 weeks ago from Pittsburgh, PA

      Interesting. What foods do you recommend to help combat depression?

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