You might think of depression as little more than the blues.
However, that impression is incorrect. Even if your low mood begins as a reaction to life events, it can cause biological changes in your brain, making it a very real disease.
As with any disorder, letting your depression go untreated entails significant risk. Here’s what you should know — perhaps it will inspire you to seek help.
1. Substance Abuse
The unaffordable health care tragedy in the United States wears many faces. Perhaps nowhere is its impact more devastating on family systems than in the realm of mental disorders.
Many people, even those with coverage, avoid using services that they nevertheless can’t afford, and some lack insurance altogether. They still suffer, so they look for other ways to manage their disease.
Unfortunately, this need often leads people with depression to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. The problem is, these substances themselves cause neurochemical changes in the brain.
One issue is tolerance. People find they need more and more of their substance of choice to get the desired relief. It quickly becomes a slippery slope into doing anything necessary, even criminal acts, to get the magic stuff that eases their pain.
Furthermore, brain changes lead to altered behavior. Many people who struggle with substance abuse alienate their support systems. When they lose the perception that people care, they can spiral even further down a dark path, using more and more to mask their feelings of shame, inadequacy, and loneliness.
Treatment becomes more complex at this point. By the time addiction occurs, it doesn’t matter if the depression came first or the substance abuse — it’s a chicken and egg question. Providers must treat both in tandem, as these two interwoven conditions can each complicate the recovery of the other.
For example, alcohol depresses the central nervous system, which is why you feel elated when you take a drink. However, when those neurotransmitters try to rebound and adjust as you get sober, you experience increased anxiety.
This emotion can trigger depression in some, which in turn leads to the urge to self-medicate.
2. Weight Gain or Loss
Substance abuse can lead to dramatic weight loss or gain. Both can have significant risks for your health.
It’s impossible to overstate the prevalence of obesity in America or the health problems resulting from it. Carrying too much weight ups your risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Over 80 million Americans already live with a prediabetic condition, often without knowing it. Alcohol also raises blood sugar, which can aggravate the situation.
Excessive weight loss can also pose health risks. Being underweight increases your chances of getting sick from infections, as your body lacks the necessary resources to fight back.
Many people who shed pounds from substance abuse rely on stimulants, which can also tax your heart.
3. Heart Disease
Heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women worldwide. Substance abuse puts undue pressure on this organ. For example, a single drink spikes your blood pressure.
While it returns to normal when you sober up, prolonged heavy drinking can cause it to stay high, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Stimulants can wreak havoc on your heart. Even drinking more than six cups of coffee daily can increase your risk of heart disease by 22%. Amphetamines and methamphetamines can cause a precipitous spike in heart rate and pressure, leading to an attack.
Drugs and alcohol cause chemical changes in your body’s tissues. Unfortunately, consumption of these substances even in small amounts causes free radicals to proliferate. Free radicals are unpaired electrons that seek mates — often stealing them from your body’s cells.
When they commit this heist, your cells become damaged. If it impacts your DNA, cancer could develop.
Alcohol, for example, causes fatty liver disease in nearly everyone who overindulges. Up to 35% develop alcoholic hepatitis, and between 10% to 20% go on to develop cirrhosis.
Part of your recovery from comorbid depression and substance abuse should involve nutritional interventions. For example, a plant-based diet rich in antioxidants can help prevent future free radical damage, giving your body the building blocks it needs to recover.
Additionally, some foods can help ease your depression naturally. Snacks rich in the minerals zinc, selenium, and magnesium can relieve symptoms of this disorder, sometimes as effectively as medication. Nuts and seeds contain these substances.
While you may still need a prescription to manage your disease, adding some almonds and pepitas to your lunchtime salad couldn’t hurt.
The ultimate risk of letting your depression go untreated is death. Any of the above conditions may kill you.
Your certificate might not list mental illness as the underlying cause — but those closest to you probably suspect the truth. Even before COVID-19, over 70,000 Americans died of despair annually.
The rates have skyrocketed since then as financial and health care needs often go unmet in today’s increasingly inequitable economy.
Suicide is also a risk. If you have thoughts of self-harm, please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The call is free. You can also get help by texting “start” to 741741.
Watch Out for These 5 Risks of Letting Your Depression Go Untreated
Finding the right treatment for mental health disorders can be challenging in the U.S., but you shouldn’t let the hurdles derail your search.
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