Depression, the Disease

Today is World Mental Health Day, which this year is focused on clinical depression. Depression is more than just a blue mood. It is an organic illness that actually has a constellation of effects and symptoms, of which feeling down is only one. Depression also has a number of physical effects, and can be treated by medications and even dietary changes.

Depression, as an illness, is the result of chemical changes in the brain. What causes these changes is unclear; it is likely that some people’s brains are congenitally prone to undergo these changes as a result of life stress—in other words, it is a combination of internal and external factors. Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism, medications such as steroids, and alcohol and drug abuse can exacerbate depression and increase the risk. Depression is known to run in families, though people do develop the condition without a family history.

Like many illnesses, depression can have physical effects. Changes in appetite and corresponding fluctuations in weight is one of the more obvious effects, but there are others as well. Depression tends to lead to sleep problems—fatigue, trouble falling asleep, trouble getting up. People with depression often have achiness with no apparent cause.

There are a variety of medications for depression. Different ones may be effective for different people, and it can take some experimenting to find the drug with the right balance of usefulness against depression and no or acceptable and tolerable side effects.

Moreover, some people prefer not to rely on, or solely on, medications to control depression. For some, counseling is sufficient. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is designed to teach people to break maladaptive habits, and can be used with or without pharmaceutical treatment. Dietary changes may be effective; giving up alcohol removes a major factor in depression, and recent studies have linked depressive symptoms to vitamin D deficiency, which mean simply getting more sunlight can help. Some people have found that removing all sources of stress from their lives eliminated depression, but this requires such drastic lifestyle changes—up to and including quitting your job, getting rid of most of your possessions, and moving to a new place—that it may not be practical for most people. Less extreme simplification of your life, however, can be helpful, as can a change in environment if your living situation might have subtle depressive triggers or negative associations.

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