We all get the blues from time to time. Feeling down, lonely, sad, or distracted is a normal response to disappointment, loss, stress, and other challenges of life. Although people often refer to these as feeling depressed, clinical depression is another thing altogether.
Major depressive disorder is a serious mental illness that adversely affects not only your mood and quality of life but also other aspects of your health. Researchers have discovered surprisingly strong links between heart health and mental health disorders like depression, and the relationship is bidirectional. In other words, depression may be a cause or an effect of heart disease—and having one condition can worsen the other.
Getting to the Heart of Depression
Clinical depression is a complex disorder that involves an interaction of physical, psychological, and social factors. Symptoms, which are much more severe and longer lasting than run-of-the-mill sadness, include:
- Enduring feelings of sadness and worthlessness
- Low energy and motivation*
- Loss of interest or pleasure in things you used to enjoy*
- Difficulty focusing and concentrating
- Sleep problems—sleeping too little or too much
- Changes in appetite with weight gain or weight loss
- Suicidal thoughts
The causes of depression are not completely understood, but chemical imbalances in the brain, specifically in the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, may play a role. Certain personality traits and a family history of depression can increase risk, so there appears to be a genetic susceptibility. Hormones are another factor, as demonstrated by the baby blues, or postpartum depression. Past experiences such as abuse and drug or alcohol use have also been linked with depression.
Stressful life events can trigger depression as well. Divorce, the death of a loved one, job loss, financial setbacks, trauma, or a serious illness or health scare can initiate a downward spiral that ends in a major depressive episode.
Cardiac Events Can Also Cause Depression
The emotional stress of a heart attack is bound to stir up powerful feelings and mood changes, such as sadness, fear, anxiety, and even anger. In fact, people who have had a heart attack are three times more likely to have symptoms of depression compared to the general population.
Depressive symptoms also often arise after cardiac arrest, acute heart failure, and coronary artery bypass surgery. This is so common that it’s been given a name: cardiac blues. Depressed mood, fatigue, sleep problems, lack of energy and motivation, and related symptoms following a major cardiac event usually diminish over time, but they can develop into a new diagnosis of clinical depression.
Depression-Heart Disease Links
Conversely, depression is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Research reveals that individuals who are suffering with depression are more likely to develop cardiovascular disorders. Plus, they have a greater risk of recurring heart problems and worse outcomes, including premature death. Let’s take a closer look at how depression can contribute to heart disease:
Lifestyle factors: Depression is associated with adverse changes in energy, sleep, motivation, and appetite. This often translates into inactivity, insomnia, poor diet, weight gain, and other lifestyle factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Unhealthy coping mechanisms for mood disorders, such as overeating, smoking, and drinking alcohol, compound the problem.
Stress: Chronic stress is a risk factor for both depression and heart disease. The effects of stress on the heart stem from the surge of hormones that is part of your body’s natural response to perceived threats. To prepare you for “fight or flight,” your arteries constrict, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your blood slightly thickens. These changes normally subside, but unrelenting stress is associated with heart palpitations and arrhythmias, hypertension, coronary artery disease, and other cardiovascular conditions.
Anxiety: Anxiety disorders are very common in individuals with clinical depression. Because it is closely linked with elevations in cortisol and other stress hormones, chronic anxiety further contributes to heart disease.
Inflammation: Both depression and cardiovascular disease are characterized by chronic inflammation, and many researchers believe this helps to explain the relationship between the two conditions. A 2020 study concluded that “inflammation may play an important role in bridging the link between depression and CVD, a finding that can have important clinical implications for the prevention and early intervention of these conditions.”
Medications: Drugs prescribed for depression may also increase cardiovascular risk. Discuss your medication regimen with your doctor. Never decrease or discontinue antidepressants on your own, as this can result in serious adverse effects.
Natural Ways to Treat Depression & Enhance Heart Disease
Do not dismiss the significance of major depression. It is a serious mental illness that must be treated by professionals. Talk to your doctor about the following drug-free approaches. In conjunction with a medically supervised treatment program, these therapies can help to reduce stress, improve mood—and enhance cardiovascular health.
- Counseling: Don’t go it alone. Talking to a counselor, therapist, pastor, or other trusted individual helps to get to the bottom of your feelings, gain perspective, and learn constructive coping techniques.
- Stress management: Explore breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, prayer, and other stress management techniques. Find something that works for you and make it part of your daily routine.
- Exercise: Physical activity is one of the most powerful antidepressants out there, plus it has profound benefits for heart health. Exercising outside is an especially effective mood booster.
- Sleep: Everything looks brighter after a good night’s sleep, plus it supports your heart, brain, and every other system in your body. If you’re having sleep issues, try low-dose melatonin and other strategies for restful sleep.
- Diet: Get plenty of protein, as it contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters. Select unprocessed carbohydrates such as high-fiber produce, beans, and legumes. Avoid sugars, which cause blood sugar swings that adversely affect your mood. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, like my Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean Diet (PAMM Diet), and go easy on alcohol.
- Supplements: Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and turmeric have been shown in clinical trials to improve both depression and heart disease. Other recommended supplements include ashwagandha, an herb that helps you adapt to stress, and magnesium, which is essential for heart and brain health and is depleted by stress.
- Grounding: Walking barefoot on grass, sand, brick, or concrete connects you to the earth’s healing energy. Grounding calms your nervous system and nurtures your body, mind, and soul.
* Be aware of these symptoms in your loved ones, as they are the earliest signs of depression that you may notice and perhaps offer your assistance.