Depression is a common mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. It is also called major depressive disorder, and it can lead to physical symptoms, including sickness.

While the most common symptoms of depression are emotional, such as feeling hopeless and sad, some people also experience physical symptoms, such as feeling sick. These physical issues can be just as debilitating as mood-related symptoms and lead to daily challenges for many people.

This article answers the question, “Can depression make you sick?” and looks at other physical symptoms of depression, as well as their treatment and some natural remedies that may help.

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Depression can indeed cause sickness and influence an individual’s digestive health. Typically, symptoms of depression include psychological issues, but some people can experience cramps and digestive problems that do not have a clear cause.

Gastrointestinal symptoms may occur because of the physical and chemical link between the brain and the digestive system. Doctors may call this the gut-brain axis. It is a bidirectional pathway, meaning the intestines communicate any issues to the brain, and the brain also communicates problems to the intestines.

Experts have linked depression to various digestive issues. For example, a large 2018 study involving over 19,000 participants found that individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) had increased rates of anxiety and depression.

GERD causes the stomach contents to flow back into the esophagus, leading to heartburn and pain.

Researchers also found a link between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and depression. The pain of IBS can also be very stressful, and research indicates that 50–90% of individuals seeking treatment for IBS also have a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety or depression.

Besides gastrointestinal issues, depression may cause other physical symptoms, such as:

Pain

Individuals with depression may experience generalized pain that affects the joints, bones, or back. However, researchers still do not fully understand the relationship between pain and depression, as people living with chronic pain may become depressed, and people with depression may develop chronic pain.

One theory is that individuals living with depression process pain differently. A small 2015 study looked at this possibility and found that individuals with major depression had lower pain tolerances and thresholds.

Interestingly, a 2017 study found that lower back pain was directly linked to depression. Research suggests that individuals living with depression are 60% more likely to develop back pain than people who are not depressed.

Weight changes

People with depression may have difficulty maintaining a moderate weight. Obesity also seems to be common among people with depression. According to older data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 43% of adults with depression also experience obesity.

Experts remain unsure of the exact relationship between depression and weight changes, since depression is a risk factor for obesity and vice versa. Doctors also believe that taking antidepressant medication can lead to weight gain.

Conversely, other individuals with depression may experience a reduction in appetite and subsequent weight loss.

Immune system function problems

Depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders can increase the risk of problems with an individual’s immune system. Evidence suggests that stress and depression impair the immune system and produce low-grade, chronic inflammation that can increase an individual’s risk of infections, metabolic diseases, and cancer.

Additionally, people with autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma have an increased risk of depression.

Doctors can often treat even severe cases of depression using a combination of medications and psychotherapy. However, if an individual’s symptoms do not improve with this approach, doctors may consider electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain stimulation options.

Medications

Doctors prescribe antidepressants to improve an individual’s mood. A person may need to try various antidepressants before finding one that works and has the mildest side effects.

These medications often take up to a month to work, and an individual may notice that their sleep, appetite, and concentration issues improve before their mood. Therefore, it is essential to allow antidepressants enough time to have a positive effect.

Common antidepressants include:

Psychotherapies

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help individuals with depression by changing how they think and behave so they can better manage their symptoms. It helps people reprogram negative thought cycles and may help them manage their emotions.

Learn more about types of therapy here.

Brain stimulation therapies

If other approaches are unsuccessful in reducing depressive symptoms, doctors may consider electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This form of therapy may provide relief for individuals with severe depression.

ECT is typically an outpatient procedure requiring a short period of general anesthesia and muscle relaxant. It usually consists of several sessions, often three times weekly for up to four weeks. It is not a painful procedure, and the individual cannot feel the electrical pulses.

However, ECT may cause short-term side effects, such as confusion and memory loss. Although, occasionally, these issues continue for an extended time.

People may find that making lifestyle modifications improves their depression. Possible changes include:

  • increasing physical activity levels
  • using mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • reducing consumption of alcohol and caffeine
  • smoking fewer cigarettes or quitting altogether
  • improving sleep routine
  • developing positive, supportive relationships
  • spending time in nature

The following options may also prove valuable to some individuals living with depression.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids

Omega-3 essential fatty acids may ease mental health symptoms, including depression. However, evidence supporting this dietary supplement is slim. Although some research has found promising evidence for omega-3 fatty acids in treating depression, others found no significant value.

That said, the risk of using these supplements is low, so people may consider trying them alongside other depression treatments.

Kava kava

Kava kava is a plant-based traditional medicine. It has gained popularity in the United States, with around 1% of adults using it for depression, stress, anxiety, and inflammation.

If individuals are using monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as isocarboxazid (Marplan), phenelzine (Nardil), or tranylcypromine (Parnate), they should not use kava as it may increase the effects. Although the interactions with other antidepressant medications are unknown, people should always ask their doctor’s advice before using kava kava.

Animal therapy

Research indicates that animal therapy can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Examples include equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), which helps boost people’s moods and change negative behaviors by caring for and riding horses.

Although solid scientific evidence is scarce, some studies show that this horse-based therapy may ease the symptoms of depression and other psychiatric issues.

If an individual experiences the following symptoms for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, the doctor may diagnose them with depression:

  • persistent sadness
  • emptiness
  • irritability
  • guilt
  • hopelessness
  • low energy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • sleeping issues
  • appetite and weight changes
  • thoughts of death or suicide
  • moving or talking slowly

Not all symptoms of depression are obvious. Learn more about hidden signs of depression here.

If an individual experiences symptoms of depression for two weeks or more, they should seek their doctor’s advice. The doctor may recommend medications to improve their mood, and the earlier they begin treatment, the more effective it is.

Additionally, a doctor can perform physical examinations and tests to rule out other potential causes.

Learn more about support groups for depression here.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.

Click here for more links and local resources.

Although many people consider depression a mental health illness, it can cause physical symptoms, including sickness. Experts have found links between depression and several gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Doctors treat depression with a combination of medications, such as antidepressants, and therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Individuals should seek their doctor’s advice if they experience symptoms of depression for more than two weeks. Their doctor can rule out any physical causes and can recommend medication. Beginning treatment as soon as possible helps increase the chances of success.