It's Really Not Just in Your Head: How Depression 'Lives' in Your Body

depressed woman

If you've suffered from depression, you know how utterly cut off from the world -- and yourself -- it can make you feel. This is not helped, of course, by people who try to cheer you up by saying things like, "Snap out of it!" or "Come on, things aren't that bad!" They're not trying to be cruel, of course, but many people assume depression is "all in your head."


And believing that can further add to a depressed person's guilt and shame. Why can't I get a grip and feel better already?

The answer may lie in a more complex theory: Depression may not "just" originate from some f-ed up brain chemicals or trauma you're working through. It could actually be caused by your body's inability to detoxify itself.

When researchers at the University of Granada looked at 29 different studies that analyzed how depression physically affected nearly 4,000 people, they found a curious link. People who were depressed also had high levels of what's called "oxidative stress."

That, in and of itself, is a complicated subject, so we'll keep the explanation short: Your body requires oxygen to breathe (duh) and create energy. But too much oxygen creates nasty by-products. You've probably heard of free radicals, which operate like little cellular terrorists, contributing to disease and making you feel and look like s**t.

"Our study could confirm that depression is a systemic disease," explains lead researcher Sara Jiminez Fernandez, PhD, a psychiatrist at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit in the Hospital of Jaen in Jaen, Spain.

Which would explain why people who are depressed are at higher risk of diseases like heart disease and cancer. They also die younger than their happier counterparts.

Today's standard of care for depression is antidepressants, "which also improve oxidative status," says Fernandez. But her research could prove fundamental, she adds, in developing new (and hopefully better) treatments.

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The link between oxidative stress and depression may feel like a revelation to us, but it actually isn't news to many who work in the mental health field, says Jerry L. Halverson, MD, DFAPA, medical director of Rogers Memorial Hospital Oconomowoc in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. As Dr. Halverson points out:

The mind and the body are connected in so many ways that we don't understand. I see in my practice every day where psychiatric disorders worsen and, in some cases, cause other physical disorders.

"Depression is linked to multiple markers of oxidative stress," agrees Beth Salcedo, MD, medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, DC, but she sees this more as a chicken or egg situation.

"The markers could be the result of, rather than the cause of, depression..." Dr. Salcedo suggests. "So yes, this is an area that needs further study, but [the research] doesn't tell us much just yet."

That said, "it certainly does enhance our understanding of the effects that poorly treated depression can have on physical illnesses," Dr. Halverson says. "The key will be to find a way to test [for depression] in order to diagnose and treat it more effectively than we can right now."

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So where does this leave us? With a glimmer of hope, perhaps. That maybe one day, depression will be as treatable as, say, chicken pox or strep throat. And maybe science will show that it can be staved off or alleviated by a healthy diet and exercise and --oh wait, that's already true.

Maybe we'll just settle for this: that when you admit that you're dealing with depression, people will nod sympathetically rather than rolling their eyes or scratching their heads.

We can dream, at least.


Image via Shaneppl/Shutterstock

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