How Major Depression Affects the Brain and Body – Why Residential Treatment Can Help

Major depression is a common yet serious mental illness that causes low mood as well as a number of physical symptoms. Depression, especially when it goes untreated, can actually change the brain, making episodes worse or more frequent. It also impacts the body and physical health, causing fatigue, digestive issues, pain, and other complications related to the poor decisions made when in a depressed mood. Treatment, especially dedicated residential treatment, can provide relief from depression symptoms and can begin to reverse the damage done to the brain and body. 

Depression is one of the most common types of mental illnesses. A mood disorder, depression impacts between 15 and 20 percent of people, with women more often diagnosed. Depression can be debilitating and it can cause a number of serious complications, affecting both mental and physical health.

Suicide, poor nutrition, substance abuse, weight changes, and more are possible and typical consequences of untreated depression. But this illness can be treated, and often residential treatment is the best solution for managing symptoms and reversing damage to the body and brain.

What Is Major Depression?

Major depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder and mental illness that causes significantly and persistently low moods. More than just feeling down for a day or two, depression causes a bad mood that you can’t shake for weeks. Some of the key symptoms and signs of depression are:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Anxiety, restlessness, frustration, or irritability
  • Feeling worthless, guilty, or ashamed
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering
  • Thoughts of suicide and death

You may be diagnosed with depression if you have some of these symptoms for a couple weeks or longer, if they are severe enough to disrupt your normal functioning, and if they cannot be explained by substance abuse, medications, or an illness.

How Depression Affects the Brain

No one knows for sure what causes depression, but researchers have determined that it is definitely a disorder that has biological underpinnings and that the chemistry of the brain plays a big role. Studies have uncovered how differences in the brain’s structure and chemicals may contribute to depression, but also ways that having depression changes your brain:

  • Cortisol and memory. Part of the brain called the hippocampus releases the hormone cortisol when you’re stressed, which includes episodes of depression. When your brain gets flooded with cortisol for long periods of time, it can slow or stop the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus. This results in the hippocampus actually shrinking in size, which in turn leads to memory problems.
  • Cortisol and the amygdala. The influx of cortisol triggered by depression also causes the amygdala to enlarge. This is a part of the brain associated with emotional responses. When it becomes larger and more active, it causes sleep disturbances, changes in activity levels, and changes in other hormones.
  • Brain inflammation. It isn’t yet clear whether inflammation is a trigger for depression or depression causes inflammation. But, studies clearly show a link, that people with depression have more inflammation in the brain. One study specifically found that people who have struggled with depression for more than ten years have 30 percent more inflammation. Brain inflammation can worsen depression, interfere with neurotransmitters that regulate mood, and negatively impact learning and memory.
  • Hypoxia. Hypoxia, or reduced oxygen, has also been linked with depression. The result of the brain not getting adequate amounts of oxygen can include inflammation and injury to and death of brain cells. In turn, these changes in the brain impact learning, memory, and mood.

The Toll Depression Takes On the Body

Depression is much more than just a brain disorder. It causes physical symptoms and can cause lasting damage to the body because of both direct effects and indirect complications of living with this mental illness. For instance, depression can change your appetite. It may trigger you to eat less and lose an unhealthy amount of weight. Or it can cause you to eat more, leading to weight gain and associated health conditions.

You may also experience chronic pain as a result of depression. Unexplained aches and pains, like headaches, back pain, or joint tenderness, can be triggered by depression. Although not fully understood, it may be that depression makes you less tolerant of pain, so that everything just hurts more.

Living with depression puts you at risk for serious physical health conditions, including heart disease and stroke. The reason for this may be that depression triggers an overproduction of clotting factors and variation in heart rate. These are both factors that can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Gastrointestinal distress is a potential complication of depression. The gut actually has a major connection to mood and mental health and is sometimes referred to as the body’s second brain. There are important receptors in the gut and an ecosystem of bacteria, which when out of whack can affect mood. If you are depressed, you may experience stomach aches, indigestion, nausea, cramps, or bloating.

Fatigue is a common symptom of depression, and one of the most consistent physical consequences of this mental illness. This lack of energy is beyond normal tiredness. It makes you feel apathetic, irritable, and like you just don’t want to do anything. Just getting out of bed in the morning can feel insurmountable.

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Residential Treatment Provides a Space to Heal

One of the most important reasons to choose residential care for depression treatment is that it gives you the space, the time, and the opportunity to truly focus on healing. There are no distractions of home, work, and other responsibilities, only a safe place to get better. The damage that depression has done to your brain and body can be slowed, stopped, and even reversed with good care.

The most effective treatment for depression is a combination of therapy and medications, both of which take time to work. This is another reason that residential treatment is a smart choice for depression care. It gives you time to develop a rapport with a therapist and to make positive changes. It also gives you a chance to try one or more antidepressants to find the medication that will adjust your brain chemicals in just the right way for maximum impact with fewest side effects.

Getting relief from depression through treatment will immediately begin to help your brain, reversing the shrinking of certain areas, the inflammation, and the overflow of cortisol. This in turn will help you feel better overall, and you will begin to get relief for the physical symptoms.

Because depression is an illness of the body as well as the brain, choose a treatment program that addresses your physical health needs. In addition to antidepressants and therapy, you can benefit from additional services. A nutrition program will help you make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise and recreation can do the same and begin to lower your risk of obesity and heart disease. Good medical care in general will address other physical health needs and improve your overall wellness.

The impact that depression has on the body and in the brain is significant, but it can be minimized. If you think you may have depression, get a diagnosis as soon as possible. The sooner you get good treatment for this mental illness, the better the outcome will be. You will be able to improve your mood, reduce depressive episodes, and restore good brain and physical health.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.