We talk a lot about physical health here at Paleohacks, but getting your mental health on point is just as important. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about what depression looks like, how it might affect you, and what you can do about it.
Let’s tackle those now. With the right information at hand, it’s easier to pinpoint the issues and find a way to overcome them.
What Is Depression?
People throw around the word a lot. You’ll hear it often after breakups, stressful periods at work, the loss of a loved one, and various other negative situations.
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These natural lows aren’t always synonymous with depression. While the symptoms – sadness, fatigue, etc. – can often overlap, there are important differences between being upset or down and being truly depressed.
Depression is a mood disorder that is often debilitating. It’s extremely common, affecting around 350 million people around the world at any given moment (1). The percentage of Americans who take antidepressants is skyrocketing (2).
The extent of the problem is probably even larger than the statistics suggest. Sometimes we don’t recognize depression symptoms, or we write them off as just being sad or down in the dumps. And although the stigma surrounding mental health has eased over the years, it still persists (3).
Symptoms of Depression
The first step to improved mental health is getting an accurate assessment of the issue at hand.
Depression can be tricky because it affects individuals differently. While we all experience similar sensations when we’re hungry, for instance, things are more nuanced with mental health.
While there are a few “classic” depression symptoms, there’s no guarantee you’ll experience them in your own struggle. The last thing you want to do is overlook the problem just because you don’t see the stereotypical warning signs.
With that in mind, here’s a list of common and uncommon depression symptoms. Some of them might surprise you.
1. Chronic Disruptions in Sleep Patterns and Fatigue
Tossing and turning for a few nights is one thing. But if you notice long-term changes in your sleep patterns (whether it’s a lot more or a lot less sleep than normal), you might be depressed.
One study found that about three-quarters of depressed people have insomnia symptoms, which is troubling because insomnia even in non-depressed persons is a risk factor for developing depression later on (4). In other words, it can become a vicious cycle.
2. Neglected Hygiene and Personal Appearance
Depression can translate into neglected hygiene and personal appearance. You might stop showering, getting haircuts, and shaving as often as you used to. When you’re exhausted and at your limit just trying to cope with the day, concerns about things like wearing wrinkled or stained clothing can fall by the wayside.
Data from over 10,000 health and nutrition surveys revealed a connection between depression and poor dental health. This connection was also “dose dependent,” which means the severity of the dental problems increased with the severity of the depression (5). A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry tracked over 2,000 elderly participants for nine years and found that depressive symptoms were “significant predictors” of self-neglect (6).
3. Chronic Aches and Pains
The mental anguish of depression often coincides with physical pain. If you find yourself in pain regularly, whether it’s headaches, cramps, or even digestive problems, depression might be a factor. According to the World Health Organization, a staggering 75 percent of depressed people suffer from chronic pain (7).
You can’t base a depression analysis on physical pain alone, but that’s what often gets people off the couch and into their doctor’s office. Many depressed people see general practitioners with complaints of physical pain alone (8). Because the mental symptoms can be more subtle, physical pain is a good starting point for a more thorough medical diagnosis.
A big thing to watch out for is a decreased ability to cope with pain. If you’ve dealt with chronic pain in the past, but now you’re suddenly much less able to bear it, that could indicate depression. One study even found that depressed people’s brains indicated more emotion and less coping response than normal as they anticipated pain (9).
It’s easy to associate “depression” with sadness, helplessness, and despair. But it can also manifest in an entirely different outlook: apathy.
You might find yourself not getting excited about things like you used to, or coming across as cold or aloof in your relationships. Persistent apathy is especially troublesome. A study published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology measured the apathy and depression of 266 people aged 60 and up. After two years of follow-up, the researchers concluded that participants with persistent apathy were less likely to recover from depression than those who had short periods of apathy or weren’t apathetic (10).
5. Anger, Short Tempers, and Foul Moods
Depression can drive people to lash out irrationally. They aren’t happy anymore. They find themselves getting furious over the smallest slights, or displacing their anger on innocent loved ones.
A 2013 study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry systematically tracked the same group of depressed people for decades and found that about 55 percent of them reported feeling angry, hostile, grumpy, and foul-tempered (11). This hostility manifested in poor impulse control (expressing anger over minor slights, like getting cut off in traffic) as well as an increased severity of hostile responses (breaking a dish or screaming during a minor argument, for instance).
6. Internet, Gambling, Shopping, or Other Addictions
Depression can drive numerous addictions as people try to escape from reality and chase short-term highs.
Internet addiction can be especially troubling because it’s so easy to surf through endless content and substitute virtual interactions for real ones. It’s a separate issue from depression, though studies have found a significant correlation between depression, low self-esteem, and Internet addiction (12). Psychologists from Leeds University in the U.K. also found that Internet addicts (only about 1.2 percent of the people they surveyed) had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression than normal users (13).
7. Increased Alcohol Use
Having a glass of wine with dinner is one thing, but it might turn into three or four if you’re depressed. People often turn to alcohol (or other drugs) in an effort to boost their mood and address depressive symptoms (14). But this can backfire. While alcohol might help you “loosen up” and feel happier for a few hours, the escape is temporary. The terrible health consequences of excessive drinking, on the other hand, are all too real.
One longitudinal study with around 10 years of follow-up found that poor mental health fueled increases in alcohol consumption (15). Another study found that comorbidity of alcohol use disorders and major depression is “pervasive” in the general population (16).
8. Significant Weight and Appetite Fluctuations
Not everyone who experiences changes in weight and appetite is depressed, but for those who are, the effects can be dramatic.
Depression affects people in different ways, either skyrocketing your appetite and weight gain or dwindling it to a fraction of its former self.
9. Thoughts of Suicide and/or Suicide Attempts
In the most serious cases, depression can lead to thoughts of suicide or even suicide attempts. Numerous studies have explored just how severe a risk factor depression is in suicide and suicide attempts. One even found it was the “most significant psychiatric risk factor” associated with adolescent suicide (18). It’s also a serious issue for the elderly. Fortunately, clinical intervention can significantly reduce suicidal ideation in depressed geriatric patients in primary care (19).
If you think you or someone you know is at this point, pick up the phone right away and call a suicide prevention hotlines to get the free, confidential help you need. You can explore numerous options by location here.
Different Types of Depression
We’ve just seen how differently depression can affect us. Your depression won’t look or feel exactly like anyone else’s.
Depression is an umbrella term for a host of different mood disorders, and some are more serious than others. Here’s a quick rundown of the different types of depression from the National Institute of Mental Health – and how they might affect you (20).
- Major Depression (also called Major Depressive Disorder, Chronic Major Depression, or Unipolar Depression). This is a serious form of depression that can interfere with your ability to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy life. Some people just experience one Major Depressive episode while others experience ongoing problems.
- Persistent Depressive Disorder (also called Dysthymia). This is a depressed mood that lasts for two years or more. There might be sporadic periods of Major Depressive episodes mixed in with less severe periods. The key is chronic, consistent symptoms.
- Perinatal Depression. Women with perinatal depression experience Major Depressive episodes during pregnancy, after giving birth, or both. The symptoms can be serious enough to interfere with their ability to care for themselves and/or their newborns.
- Psychotic Depression. This is essentially depression plus a form of psychosis, such as having delusions or experiencing hallucinations. The nature of the psychosis is usually depressive in nature, leading to feelings of guilt, fear, and shame.
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a seasonal depression that typically strikes in the winter, when the days are short and sunlight exposure scarce. Sufferers can use light therapy to elevate their moods until the seasons change.
Causes of Depression
Depression is more complicated than most other conditions because so many elements are involved. Its roots can usually be traced to a mixture of these three things:
- Brain chemistry. There is still a ton of research to be done here, but researchers believe numerous factors within certain people’s brains (nerve cell connections, hippocampus size, etc.) leave them susceptible to depression (21).
- Genetics. A family history of depression increases the likelihood of experiencing depression.
- Stressful events. Things like financial troubles, divorce, or the loss of a loved one can potentially trigger depression.
Natural Treatments for Depression
Believe it or not, a pen and paper (or a computer document) is one of the most powerful tools in your depression-busting toolbox.
It takes a little while to build the journaling habit, but it can be an amazingly cathartic experience. Sometimes just writing down your thoughts – then closing the page – can help ease the burden of carrying them around all day.
There aren’t any rigid rules to follow. Just spend a few minutes each day writing down your experiences. What did you do? How did you feel? What did you eat? Did you exercise?
One study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that simply writing down negative emotional images diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions (22).
Your journal is also an incredibly useful tool you can flip through to identify patterns of behavior that might be making your depression better or worse. And you can empower your doctor with more information to devise the best possible treatment.
Your diet has a huge effect on your mental health. It can be tempting to reach for the unhealthy foods when you’re already feeling blue. But that just makes the problems even worse.
Start with a healthy Paleo foundation of quality produce, animal protein, and seeds and nuts.
Avoid sugars at all costs. Consistent sugar consumption creates insulin resistance in the body, which can lead to a host of serious health problems. One study even found a positive connection between increased insulin resistance and depression symptoms (23)!
Stay away from processed hydrogenated fats and focus on healthy fats instead. Studies have found depressed patients tend to have much higher omega-6 fatty acid (often found in processed foods) to omega-3 fatty acid ratios (24). You can get your fill of healthy omega-3s by eating more wild-caught seafood. If you don’t like the taste of seafood, consider taking fish oil supplements.
Pay more attention to probiotics. Only now are scientists truly starting to grasp the connections between a healthy gut and a healthy mind (25). You can increase your amount of healthy gut bacteria by consuming more probiotic foods, like sauerkraut and microalgae, as well as taking daily probiotic supplements.
Last but not least, vitamin D levels have a big impact on your mood. Most of us are deficient because we work indoors and don’t see much of the sun. Consider picking up a high-quality vitamin D supplement. One study found that supplements could play a pivotal role as a “simple and cost-effective solution” for people at risk for depression (26).
It’s hard to beat the feeling of a runner’s high, but the idea of committing to a strenuous exercise program can be overwhelming for people with depression. Many of them are exhausted, sedentary, and have little motivation to meet recommended exercise guidelines.
Fortunately, it only takes a minimal amount of activity to experience significant mood improvements. A meta-analysis (review of numerous scientific studies) found that just walking at a moderate pace for 20 minutes three times a week is enough to “significantly reduce symptoms of depression” (27).
The key is to start slowly and not bite off more than you can chew. You could start walking for 10 minutes three times weekly, and bump up the time once you have the frequency down.
Even as we try to fight our depression, we inevitably face more pressure from our jobs, relationships, and other obligations.
We might not feel stressed out. But that doesn’t mean the daily grind isn’t affecting our bodies and minds. Left unchecked, this kind of chronic stress can lead to more serious depressive episodes.
How you do this is completely up to you. There are so many things that can reduce stress. The best thing you can do is pick something you love and stick to regularly – even if it’s just a few minutes.
Feeling fatigued all the time is one of the most unbearable things about depression. Fortunately, if you take care of your diet, exercise, and stress, you’ll make it easier to get the shuteye you need.
Two of the biggest sleep disruptors are caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine affects your body for longer than you might feel it. One study found just a moderate coffee dose six hours before bedtime still had “important disruptive effects” on sleep (31). So it’s definitely something to consider cutting out completely – or at least limiting your caffeine intake to the morning hours.
Alcohol can also decrease sleep quality. One study used an EEG to measure participants’ sleeping brainwave patterns. The researchers found that just a single nightcap increased delta and alpha brain activity. Those dual-activity patterns have been linked to daytime drowsiness, waking up tired, and increased headaches and irritability (32).
Sleep quality is also hugely important. What can you do to create a better sleep environment? Think about getting some blackout curtains for your bedroom windows, and don’t interact with screens for at least an hour or two before bed to avoid exposure to blue light. You can even try a simple bedtime ritual. Reading a few pages of fiction with a cup of herbal tea eases my stress and makes it easier to fall asleep.
Your Mental Health Is Worth It
The first step to beating depression is to recognize that you are not alone. Far from it. Millions of people are coping with it as you read this post.
You can track how your feel and take action to improve your symptoms naturally. Supplementing with other treatment options, like psychotherapy or antidepressant medication, might be the best move for you. But you have the power to lay a solid foundation through diet and lifestyle.
Don’t be afraid to speak to a doctor or reach out to your family and friends for support. Your mental health is worth it.
Have you ever struggled with depression and been able to beat it? If so, what did you do to start feeling better? Leave a comment below and let us know!
(Read This Next: Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes & Natural Remedies)