People often think of depression as an emotional disorder that only affects your mood and your mind, and while it is a mental health issue, it can affect your body, too.
She adds that it's important to talk about the physical aspects of depression, along with the emotional symptoms, because they both affect your functioning and quality of life, and because physical symptoms might be more obvious to some people. Plus, she adds, emotional symptoms might not manifest themselves at the beginning of someone's experience with depression, and they may be more able to identify, say, a headache than they're able to pin down a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy.
Depression can have several physical symptoms — most commonly, changes in sleep, appetite, and energy levels, and even unexplained pain like headaches or back pain. Some people might experience insomnia, fatigue, and weight changes. Dr. Bhatia says that many of these physical changes are because depression affects certain parts of the brain that also have to do with how you function.
For example, she says, "many of the neurochemical pathways that underlie depression also underlie things such as pain, so that can be one of the reasons that people who have depression can also have a higher risk of being in chronic pain."
The way depression works is that it affects different parts of the brain, so in different people, there can have different reasons why it causes difficulty sleeping.
Richa Bhatia, MD
And if you find yourself taking more "depression naps," there's a reason for that, too. A study from 2008 suggested that there's a strong link between sleep disturbance and major depression, which might explain why another study from 1992 found that napping is more common amongst people who have depression.
"The way depression works is that it affects different parts of the brain, so in different people, there can have different reasons why it causes difficulty sleeping," Dr. Bhatia says. "Sometimes people have ruminative thoughts when they are depressed, so they have thoughts that go on and on in their mind and it’s hard to control those negative pessimistic thoughts can keep them up."
Whether you're having trouble sleeping or eating, she says that treating depression itself (through therapy and medication) should help to alleviate any physical symptoms. If there are any physical symptoms that remain, it might be that the depression itself isn't fully treated, or that those symptoms are stemming from another underlying issue.
"Certain medical conditions like hypothyroidism can cause depression, so on the other hand it’s important when someone presents depression that we’re ruling out any underlying conditions that could be a factor," she says.
When in doubt, check in with your doctor, but the bottom line is that there are physical aspects to depression that you should pay attention to. Your primary care doctor might be able to take a look at any physical symptoms and determine their cause, and hopefully recommend you to a mental health practitioner should you need it.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.