How much does physical health affect depression?

Q   My doctor recently diagnosed with me with depression and ordered some blood tests in addition to prescribing anti-depressant medication. The doctor said the blood tests will screen for anything else which may be impacting on my mood, particularly relevant to a woman. How much does physical health effect depression? I understand eating a good diet and exercise are important, but how does it all link to mental health?

A  It’s great to see your doctor taking a holistic view of mental health. Blood tests not only screen for markers of medical conditions but also some vitamin/mineral deficiencies. For women, we know that a number of conditions can impact on mood, some of which include endocrine conditions such as thyroid disorders, diabetes, PCOS; menopause; iron deficiency; B12 deficiency; folate deficiency; food allergies and intolerances; and other medical conditions including neurological disorders and infectious diseases.

In counselling, psychologists often recommend consultations with your doctor so that psychological therapy is not an uphill battle due to an undiagnosed condition which could be linked to depression.

Yes you are right that a good diet and exercise are important for mental health, and nutritionists can provide further advice on a healthy balanced diet.  Looking after our bodies is further supported by research which now suggests that our digestive system (our gut) is our “second brain” - and the neurotransmitters in our gut constantly communicate messages to our brain about how we are feeling physically and emotionally. How is this possible? I will get a little bit scientific here but it should all make sense soon. Consider these two things:

Good bacteria helps digest our food and also ward off things like viruses and mould – these bacteria then communicate with neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) in our gut which impact on our mood. Serotonin and other neurotransmitters help to make us feel emotionally stable and healthy – and is produced in the brain as well as the gut. Research now tells us that approximately 90% of serotonin is produced in our gut, and only approximately 10% is produced in our brain. The most widely used antidepressants act to push more serotonin into the brain from brain cells so it makes sense to take a look at the rest of the body to ensure serotonin production is as effective as possible! This is why antidepressants should form part of a wider group of treatments for depression.

So as you can see, our digestive health is connected to our brain and therefore our mood. So even acting on what seems like a simple food intolerance can be quite helpful – but clearly that is not the answer to all mood concerns and you should always seek further advice from your medical professional.

Now a little bit more about exercise – yes it is true that exercise releases feel good hormones, but regular exercise can also reduce our stress hormones. When you exercise, particularly when you are feeling down, you will create a new “neural” pathway in your brain that links exercise to feeling good. Whereas it is too easy to reinforce and create a negative neural pathways that tells you “staying at home = feeling good” or “eating comfort food = feeling good” even if these things end up making you feel worse in the long term, physically and emotionally. The more you use a particular pathway or road in your brain, the more it becomes habit. So you have the power to choose which road you will travel down each day, reducing the power of the old habits.

Of course, all of this in conjunction with relevant medical treatment and psychological support such as counselling will only help to develop an overall healthier life.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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