When you hear the term depression, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the emotional effects of depression, such as persistent sadness, moodiness, and a negative outlook on life. And while these are hallmarks of depression, they are not the only symptoms.
The impact of severe, untreated depression can have far-reaching consequences that extend beyond your mood and emotional state. Depression can take a toll on your physical health and has been linked to an increased risk of developing chronic health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But did you know that depression can also affect brain structure and function?
What is Depression?
Depression is a mood disorder that affects millions of Americans every year. And despite popular opinion, depression is more than just feeling down or going through a rough patch. It’s a persistent state of extreme sadness and low mood that can interfere with every aspect of your life. Depression can make it difficult to work, sleep, eat, or enjoy activities you once found pleasurable.
Other common symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Experiencing unexplained aches and pains
- Low self-esteem and self-image
- Social isolation
- Feeling guilty or ashamed
- Poor decision making
- Irritability and mood swings
- Change in appetite
- Chronic fatigue and low energy levels
- Lack of motivation
- Drastic changes in weight
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Impact of Depression on The Brain
Depression not only affects your mood, thoughts, and behavior, but it can also have a significant impact on your brain. This is supported by brain imaging studies which have revealed that people with depression have reduced gray matter volume (GMV).
This shrinking of the brain is most notable in the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions and emotional regulation, resulting in the cognitive deficits and emotional dysregulation often seen in people with depression.
The changes in brain matter volume may also impact other areas of the brain, including the thalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. The thalamus is responsible for relaying sensory information to the brain and plays a role in regulating sleep and wakefulness. The hippocampus is involved in memory formation and recall. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.
The structural changes in these areas of the brain are also believed to play a significant role in developing the physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms characteristic of depression.
You may be wondering, what triggers all these changes? The stress hormone cortisol is the main culprit behind the structural changes seen in the brains of people with depression. Cortisol is released in response to excessive stress and has been shown to impede the growth and regeneration of brain cells.
Luckily, atrophy or loss of brain matter due to depression is not permanent. Once the stressors are eliminated and the concentration of cortisol in the blood returns to normal levels, the brain will begin to heal and regenerate. Depression treatment using antidepressants may also help expedite the process.
The Bottom Line
Depression can have a serious impact on your mind and body. It can lead to serious physical, psychological, and emotional health problems without treatment. Fortunately, depression is highly treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two.
If you suspect you may have depression, reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing long-term complications like brain damage.