It’s Not All in Your Head: Watch for These Physical Signs of Depression

Carbon Health Editorial Team
May 11, 2021
5 mins

The connection between depression and the physical body has a long history in medicine. The ancient Greeks had a theory that an imbalance of bodily fluids caused the feelings we now associate with depression.   

While modern research doesn’t support this early claim, it does recognize a clear link between mental and physical health.

“Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health conditions, and it doesn’t just cause deep sadness and despair,” says Marni Alexander, a licensed psychotherapist and nutritionist. “Mood disorders and anxiety often impact the physical body.”

But this connection is sometimes misunderstood — a fact that contemporary mental healthcare strives to overcome. Until recently, our society’s approach to mental illness was largely shaped by a 17th-century theory known as the Cartesian Split, or mind-body dualism. This theory holds that the mind and body are two separate entities.

This outdated concept’s effects linger even today. Physical and emotional concerns are frequently treated independently of one another, and potential relationships are overlooked.

The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a study that demonstrates this disconnect. It found that almost 70 percent of patients who met the criteria for depression visited their doctor only to address physical problems.

“Increasing our awareness of the physical signs of depression and anxiety can lead to swifter diagnosis and treatment,” Alexander explains.

Why Does Depression Cause Physical Symptoms?

The key physiological connection between our brain and body are neurotransmitters and hormones that influence mood, pain, and sleep.

Many hormones, which are produced by the body’s endocrine system, affect moods — for instance, serotonin, norepinephrine, and melatonin. And some neurotransmitters can either stimulate or calm the brain — physical issues such as pain can affect the way those neurotransmitters function.

Take feeling stressed out as an example. Stressful situations trigger a rise in our body’s cortisol levels — a natural part of our “fight or flight” response. But the prolonged release of cortisol has physical repercussions, including:

     • Weakening our immune system, increasing the number of infections we develop

     • Suppressing the digestive system, causing stomach discomfort

     • Constricting blood vessels, increasing heart attack risk factors

Because cortisol also communicates with parts of the brain that control our moods, consistently high levels have an impact on our mental state. This is why long-term stress contributes to symptoms typically associated with depression, such sleep problems, lack of concentration, and sadness.

Our modern understanding of nutrition reinforces the idea of an integrated mind-body connection.

Healthcare professionals point to established relationships between nutrition and depression, such as:

     • A lack of vitamin B12 causing fatigue, weakness, and low mood

     • Protein acting as fuel for improved cognitive, hormonal, and psychological function

     • Vitamin D’s potential role in the healthy production of neurotransmitters

What Are Physical Signs of Depression?

Research shows that physical symptoms of depression can include:

+ A lower tolerance for pain

Studies point to a relationship between depression and how we experience pain. This research shows that people with depression tend to experience greater pain levels, and sensations like chronic discomfort, soreness, and muscle aches.

+ An aching back

Depression doesn’t just increase sensitivity in the body’s pain receptors. Research suggests that it might have a relationship to back pain — particularly in the lower back.

One study found that people with depression are 60 percent more likely to develop long-term back problems. While research is ongoing, this may result from a connection between depression and our body’s response to inflammation.   

+ Headaches

Many studies show a two-way relationship between migraines and depression. But more-recent research extends this link to include common tension headaches as well.

According to one study, people with depression experience headaches up to 10 times more often than those without a clinical mood disorder — and each episode lasts longer, too.

+ Stomach troubles

There’s truth to having a gut feeling. Scientists refer to our gastrointestinal system as our “second brain” because it influences a wide range of bodily functions — including our moods.

Recent research shows that stomach issues can trigger significant emotional shifts. This includes conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional problems such as constipation, bloating, and nausea.

For decades, doctors believed that depression caused stomach problems, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology. However, this evidence suggests it might also be the other way around — shedding new light on how our brain and gut communicate.

+ Frequently feeling sick 

A growing body of research links ongoing stress with a greater risk of developing depression. Stress is a natural reaction in our body that helps us deal with threatening situations. But at high levels, it also has a major impact on the immune system.

In stressful situations, our body prioritizes certain bodily functions that help us focus and respond to potential danger — while deprioritizing other necessary functions, such as immune response. If stress levels don’t decline, your immune system may not operate at full effectiveness.

Listen to What Your Body’s Saying 

Pain and discomfort are ways that our bodies communicate what it needs. By understanding the physical signs of depression, we can pay closer attention to these signals — and how they may reflect changes to our mental health.

This awareness also fuels a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to managing mood disorders. Outcomes improve when treatment is specific to an individual and respects the unique physical-emotional relationships at play.

If you experience physical symptoms of depression, you’re not alone. Depression affects nearly 18 million adults in the United States. But studies also suggest that the vast majority of people suffering from mood disorders don’t seek help. At Carbon Health, we offer virtual mental healthcare (available in California). You can use the Carbon Health app on your iOS or Android device or book same-day appointments via our website. Check out the website of the APA (American Psychological Association) for more resources.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.