Take a Closer Look at Depression

by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher


Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to read and think about the December 2017 article concerning anxiety and depression.  That story, which was the first of a three-part series on the conditions, focused on recent news briefs concerning anxiety and depression.  Now, with part 2 of the series, we’ll look more deeply at the details of depression.
            Depression affects the whole person, including the body in general, the nervous system in particular, as well as moods, thoughts, and behaviors.  Depression creates effects in eating and sleeping patterns, self-concept, and a person’s reactions to the people and events in his/her environment.
            Depressive symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years.  There are several types of depression with varying numbers of symptoms and frequency and duration of occurrence.
            Common symptoms of any type of depression include the following: chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, headaches, backaches, digestive disorders, restlessness, irritability, quickness to anger, loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies, and feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. Additional symptoms include: sadness, hopelessness, pessimism, body aches, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of death or suicide, muscle tension, teeth grinding, or jaw clenching.
            There are a number of risk factors for depression.  Simply being female is a big risk factor.  Women endure depression (and anxiety) disorders twice as often as men; currently, researchers speculate that hormonal fluctuations raise the risk of depression.  Individuals from families with a history of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and/or suicide are at increased risk for depressive disorders.  Family dynamics and childhood adversity can raise the risk of developing depression as well.  Worrying about money, health, or world events, especially during childhood, can increase risk of anxiety, phobias, and depression.  Likewise, children who have suffered bullying or traumatic family events have a higher risk of developing depression and/or anxiety at some point in their lives.
            Additional depression risk factors include the following:  side effects of some prescription drugs, illicit drug or alcohol use, living at a low socioeconomic level, and having few personal relationships.  Likewise, abusive relationships of any kind, or even strained relations with close family or friends can lead to increased risk of depression, as can death, divorce, or unemployment.  Certain aspects of brain chemistry or brain structure can contribute to increased depression risk or severity of depression.  Individuals with lower or higher than normal levels of specific brain chemicals are known to suffer more frequently from depression than a “normal” individual.  Similarly, having fewer than normal brain chemical receptors and/or a thin right cortex can cause depression and/or anxiety.
            Anxiety and depression often occur together; in fact, some sources state there is nearly a 60% overlap in the two conditions. While some sufferers experience the more dramatic manifestation of anxiety, namely panic attacks, which feature physical symptoms similar to a heart attack, other patients experience what’s termed GAD or generalized anxiety disorder, which is a more low grade, but chronic and persistent, unrealistic worrying about minor problems, daily events, or the future.  Other forms of anxiety disorder include obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, and social anxiety disorder.
            The three major categories of depressive disorders are as follows:  major depression, dysthymic depression, and bipolar depression.  Major depression is a combination of symptoms such as sadness, irritability, and worthlessness that persist for two or more weeks and interfere with a person’s ability to engage in daily activities, responsibilities, or interests.  Major depression is disabling and often alters sleeping and eating patterns in a negative way.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD) is a form of major depression that occurs in the fall and winter months due to the body’s reaction to lower levels of sunlight.  Dysthymic depression is a less severe and dramatic, but longer lasting, version of major depression.  Dysthymic patients are generally able to go through the routine habits of daily life but are rarely able to function at their full capacity of abilities.  Dysthymia interferes with enjoyment of life, social interactions, and normal functioning to its fullest degree.  Dysthymia may last for years. Unfortunately, Dysthymic patients may be viewed mistakenly by family, friends, co-workers, or employers as lacking initiative, goals, or discipline, when really, the patient is suffering from a medical condition.  Bipolar disorder often begins as depression, but as it progresses, the disorder evolves into alternating episodes of depression and mania, or abnormally and persistently elevated mood, energy, restlessness, or even irritability.  Bipolar disorder is less common than the other “unipolar” disorders and more decidedly linked to genetic factors and brain chemistry abnormalities, rather than environmental factors such as lifestyle or traumatic events.
            Fortunately, even with all the numerous risk factors for depression and the prevalence of the disorder in our population, there is much reason for hope.  Many things can be done to alleviate depression, or in some cases, make it go away completely.
            Among the many treatments for depression are the following: antidepressant medications, nutritional therapies, exercise, sleep improvement, self-help through depression education and support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, and simply talking through troublesome emotions or life situations with a trained counselor.
            Below are a few highlights about each treatment:
            •Antidepressant medications can favorably alter the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, thereby elevating mood and allowing thinking to become more focused.
            •Improving nutrition can make a significant difference in brain function.  Increasing intake of complex carbohydrates and proteins can improve neurotransmitter production noticeably.  Increasing intake of B-complex vitamins is also a very effective means of helping brain function.  Fairly large oral doses, or in some cases, even vitamin injections may be necessary.  Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and magnesium are also helpful in treating or preventing depressive symptoms.  See pages 361-368 of the book Prescription for Nutritional Healing (5th. edition) by Phyllis A. Balch for a comprehensive investigation of natural and nutritional depression therapies.
            •Exercise, even 10 - 15 minutes a day, can uplift mood.  Longer exercise bouts bring even more mood relief and physical health benefits.  Some researchers believe exercise can be as effective as a second antidepressant medication.
            •Sleep disturbances can wreak havoc with body balance, both physical and mental.  Work with your doctor to implement a good, healthful sleep situation for your lifestyle.  Your body and moods will improve.
            •Self-help through educational books, CDs, or websites can improve understanding of your condition and empower you to correct it.  Support groups can provide a “safe” social outlet with others suffering similar problems and can increase personal knowledge of your condition, treatment, and ways to change your situation for the better.
            •Cognitive behavioral therapy can help “retrain” your brain and reroute negative thinking and destructive behaviors to ones more positive and helpful in elevating mood.
            •Speaking with a trained counselor can help you see your problems in a new light and help you find constructive solutions to your situation.
            There are many helpful resources available.  Start with an honest discussion with your doctor and ask for referrals for information or counseling. 
            Depression can be successfully treated; seek your personal right answers; they’re available.
            Please join us later this month for a detailed look at the condition of anxiety, the third installment in the three-part series on anxiety and depression. 


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