As common as it is, depression is an elusive, hard-to-treat condition but luckily there are signs of depression you can look out for. Depression is different from day-to-day mood fluctuations, or sadness caused by challenging life circumstances. These normal emotional responses typically resolve on their own—but true depression continues unabated, often in the absence of any difficult event or situation.
The causes of depression are complex and varied, ranging from chemical imbalances in the brain to unresolved trauma. And some physical conditions increase the risk of mood disorders. Some are obvious, like cancer, heart disease and dementia. But subtle, even everyday, ailments can mimic, or even trigger, depression. If you’re experiencing ongoing blues and depressed mood, seek professional help to address underlying illness; untreated, depression usually gets worse, not better. But there are ways you can ease symptoms, support your body and enhance mental health. Here are five of the most common physical signs of depression, and what you can do.
1. Chronic pain
Infrequent discomfort, like pulling a muscle on a hike or the occasional headache, isn’t a problem. But relentless, day-after-day pain—from slow-healing injuries, arthritis, back aches, migraines or health conditions like fibromyalgia—can wear you down and seriously mess with your head. Ongoing pain increases inflammatory markers, linked with mood changes and depression. Constant physical aches also disrupt sleep, affecting psychological well-being and directly contributing to the onset of depression. And hurting all the time is stressful, especially if it interferes with your ability to work or play; the impact on daily routines, relationships, finances and social life can lead to irritability, anxiety and depression.
What you can do
First, don’t ignore this sign of depression. Massage, yoga and acupuncture are all proven ways to manage chronic pain. Butterbur and feverfew have been shown to relieve migraines. And natural anti-inflammatories and analgesics like turmeric, white willow bark, boswellia and cat’s claw can ease arthritis, back aches and other kinds of chronic pain.
2. Nutrient deficiencies
Nutrition and mood are undeniably connected. Certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients influence brain function, neurotransmitter production and inflammation, and deficiencies are common in people with mental disorders. Omega-3 fats play a critical role in brain function and protect against inflammation, and a higher consumption of fish and omega-3 fats is associated with a lower rate of depression, mood disorders and bipolar. Amino acids in protein are required to make neurotransmitters; dopamine and serotonin, linked with pleasure, motivation, happiness and well-being, are made from tyrosine and tryptophan, and a lack of either seriously impacts mood. B vitamins, especially B6, B12 and folate, are involved in neurotransmitter production and brain function, and low levels are linked with poor mood and higher rates of mental disorders. And a greater intake of magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc decreases the risk of depression.
What you can do
Start with a balanced diet rich in vital brain-nourishing nutrients. If your eating patterns are less than ideal, supplement with high-quality, food-based nutrients. Especially important for vegans: plant-based diets are lacking in vitamin B12, EPA and DHA, and may be lower in protein. Increase meat-free proteins, and fill in the gaps with vegan-friendly supplements.
3. Gut problems
The brain and gastrointestinal system are intimately connected, and an unsettled gut can impact well-being and be a sign of depression. Microorganisms in the intestines produce serotonin and other brain chemicals involved in mood, and studies link disturbances in the gut microbiome with higher rates of depression. When gut bacteria are imbalanced, harmful bacteria proliferate, leading to inflammation and, over time, intestinal permeability—a condition called leaky gut, associated with an increased likelihood of depression, anxiety and mood disorders. Damage to the intestinal lining also influences the body’s ability to absorb crucial brain nutrients, further increasing the risk of depression. And research shows people with digestive conditions like celiac, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with a significantly greater risk of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
What you can do
Baby your belly—clean up your diet, emphasize gut-friendly foods, minimize stress and get plenty of restful sleep, all shown to improve intestinal health. Natural supplements like digestive enzymes, curcumin, L-glutamine and collagen support digestion, minimize inflammation and heal the lining of the intestines. And baby your belly with beneficial bacteria—research shows probiotics and prebiotics have positive effects on depression, anxiety and other mood disturbances.
4. Thyroid imbalances
The relationship between thyroid function and mental health has long been recognized, and problems with the thyroid gland and the hormones it products can mimic a number of psychiatric conditions. While both excess and insufficient levels of thyroid hormones can impact mental health, an overactive thyroid is more likely to cause anxiety, irritability and mood swings; depression, apathy and fatigue are more common with low thyroid function. Autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, injury to the thyroid and medications are the most common causes of full-blow hypothyroidism, but even subtle thyroid disturbances significantly influence mood. In some studies, as many as 40 percent of patients with affective disorders like depression and bipolar have subclinical hypothyroidism—not overt thyroid disease. And diet plays a key role: selenium, iron and zinc are required for the production of thyroid hormones, and deficiencies can impact thyroid function and mental well-being.
What you can do
Check with your doctor to rule out autoimmune diseases and other causes, then support your thyroid with a healthy lifestyle and clean diet. Focus on lean protein and nutrient-rich vegetables, nuts and seeds, plus seaweed—one of the best natural sources of iodine. A well-formulated thyroid supplement can bridge any nutrient gaps.
A growing area of research suggests underlying, low-grade infections—and the inflammation that accompanies them—are involved in some forms of mental illness, and some scientists even suggest depression should be thought of as an infectious disease. The theory: untreated parasitic, bacterial or viral infections promote chronic inflammation, impair the microbiome, disrupt immune response, impact neurotransmitters and directly contribute to the onset of depression. A number of pathogens—including Epstein-Barr virus and the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles—are associated with psychiatric conditions, and studies show people with depression or mood disorders have increased levels of inflammatory markers, suggesting an immune-system response to a pathogen. And in one study, hospitalization for infection was linked with a 62 percent higher risk of later developing a mood disorder, including depression and bipolar.
What you can do
Check with your doctor to identify and treat any underlying, possibly serious, infections. Then keep your body healthy and strong, with a diet and lifestyle that eases stress, lowers inflammation and enhances immunity to fight off infections. Natural herbs and supplements that boost your resistance to pathogens can add an extra layer of support.
Food plays a critical role on mental health. Read on for helpful articles and a meal plan to boost your mood naturally: