Effects of Isolation-Induced Depression

Depression and the physiological processes involved are complex, but we can relate two common symptoms to make the connection to how they may affect our body and brain over time. Remember, depression is a condition that builds over time, it does not appear quickly, so the effects are likewise more chronic than acute. When something impacts our health over time, it usually effects multiple body systems. One way to understand the effects of isolation-induced depression is to relate those effects to two of the most common symptoms we experience. In doing so, we will learn the extent depression can impact our overall health.

Changes in Sleep

There is significant evidence that sleep matters. It is not just any sleep, but quality and quantity that makes the difference. Let’s start by clarifying what sleep issues are considered normal for older people. The National Institute of neurological disease and stroke confirms, “As you age, you sleep less of your time in REM sleep.| Our sleep may also be disrupted once or twice a night, often for a need to use the bathroom. These are not the types of changes in sleep pattern we are discussing related to depression.

Significant sleep pattern disruption is one of the most common changes related to depression. This can includes sleeping more, less or unreliably. It is not uncommon for a person to begin to sleep through most of the day and then be unable to sleep well at night. For most elders, our circadian rhythms prefer we sleep at night and remain awake during the day.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)m “Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. They respond primarily to light and darkness …Sleeping at night and being awake during the day is an example.”

In addition, they note, “Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature, and other important bodily functions…Irregular rhythms have been linked to various chronic health conditions, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression…”

Sleep disruption is a common symptom of depression. It also contributes to almost all of the other symptoms related to depression. In fact, sleep disruption can be a significant contributor to the development of depression itself. There is a problematic cyclical relationship between depression and sleep pattern disruption.

Research has shown that social isolation decreases sleep quality. This exacerbates depression. The National Sleep Foundation confirms that “sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorder.” Under these circumstances then, social isolation causes sleep disruption which aggravates depression, one of the outcomes of which is additional sleep disruption. Here, we can start to see the frustrating cycle of cause-and-effect that occurs.

Why does sleep play such an important role in our mental health? Sleep allows both our body and our brain to rejuvenate. While resting can be helpful, our brain needs to go through certain sleep phases to be at its best. It may be easier to understand if we liken it to making bread. If we don’t let the dough rise as long as it should or if we don’t bake it for the correct amount of time, the bread simply isn’t as good as it could have been. Likewise, our brain needs quality sleep that allows it to complete all sleep phases for the right amount of time in order to function at its best. It is a basic requirement for optimal mental health.

Beyond the obvious effect of feeling sleepy, other impacts include fatigue, irritability, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, increased clumsiness (leading to falls), and increased appetite including carbohydrate cravings. One way to think about why we need sleep and the effects it can have is to think of sleep as the garbage truck for the brain – when allowed to do its job, it travels through and cleans up all the refuse from the day’s work, transporting it out of the brain. If we don’t get enough sleep, our brain becomes cluttered and clogged by previous days’ metabolic garbage.

Changes in Appetite

Depression can cause us to eat more than is necessary or not enough to fully sustain us. Overeating means taking in more nutrients than our bodies need. Undereating means we aren’t consuming enough to fully nourish ourselves. Both are problematic. Both can be effects of depression.

When we consume extra food because of depression, it is often not nutritious. This can be because we are not motivated and don’t have the energy to prepare a meal, so we eat foods that are easier like chips and packaged sweets. Many of us might focus on what we consider to be ”comfort food”. These may even be given to us by our family and friends who think it might make us feel better. All of these foods are generally high in calories, sugar, carbohydrates and/or salt.

Too many calories result in weight gain. Excess carbohydrates, including sugar, causes severe swings in blood sugar levels. High salt intake can affect blood pressure and water retention. These can put extra strain on our muscles, joints, and bones; make our heart and lungs work harder; stress our endocrine system . These are all significant negative impacts on our physical well-being.

Undereating can also be dangerous. If we don’t eat enough calories, our body has no fuel to allow it to function, like a car that runs out of gas. Since depression tends to reduce our motivation, physically having less energy because of malnutrition becomes a likely outcome. Significant weight loss is also a sign of depression.

If we are regularly substituting empty-calorie foods for nutritious meals, our cells can easily lack the right nutrients to allow us to feel good and be healthy. These include vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, fiber, and protein. The negative impacts of poor nutrition are even more urgent if we are under-eating.

Lack of nutrients can cause a variety of issues, especially related to electrolytes. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes. We get them from the foods we eat and the fluids we drink. If we are malnourished, we may not have them in the right amounts for our cells to function correctly. Fluid and Electrolyte Balance, MedlinePlus)

The Mayo Clinic explains that sodium (salt) helps maintain normal blood pressure, supports nerve and muscle function, and regulates our body’s fluid balance. Too little sodium may cause headache, confusion, low energy, drowsiness, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle weakness, spasms or cramps. In severe cases seizures and coma may result.

Healthline states that potassium deficiency causes the same symptoms and can also include tingles and numbness, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, and digestive symptoms .

Electrolyte imbalances are often associated with dehydration. Not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration which impacts all of our systems. It is easy to see how changes in diet caused by depression can lead to multiple health effects we may not think would be related. What we eat literally changes how our body functions. It requires a balance, not too much or too little.

Changes that occur are interrelated. Depression effects appetite and sleep. Sleep effects mood and appetite. Appetite influences mood and energy. Energy effects food choices and sleep. Any change in the delicate balance of these factors can be detrimental to our health.

Depression can exhibit itself through over-eating or under-eating. While seemingly opposite problems, they both can cause nutrient imbalances that result in detrimental effects on the same body systems. Cardiovascular (heart), pulmonary (lungs), skeletal, muscular, endocrine, gastrointestinal (stomach and bowels), and the immune system can be affected. Likewise, sleep disruption can affect most of these systems as well, making sleep and nutrition two of the many intertwined elements that make depression a condition that deserves attention.

Depression, which is classified as a behavioral health condition, in severe situations can increase to delusions or hallucinations. Left untreated, depression can become life-threatening. Beyond the harmful impact on our physical health, the psychological toll it takes on our experience and outlook on life, depression too often results in a person choosing to take their own life. The NAMI reports that this unfortunately occurs in about 20% of those who have seen a doctor the day of the suicide, 40 percent have seen a doctor in the previous week, and 70% during the prior month.

Depression has recognizable symptoms. If we are familiar with them, and pay attention to ourselves and those we know, we can identify depression. The effects can be mild or literally life-threatening. Some are easier to identify through their outward presentation, but others may be negatively impacting our health on the inside. Being mindful to the causes and effects can help us seek early intervention to minimize the negative effects of depression.


To learn more, visit our Other Effects of Isolation-Induced Depression page

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