Effects of Depression on the Body’s Immune System


The World Health Organization projects that depression will cause more years in life lost to disability than any other illness by 2030 (WHO 2008, cited in Blume et al. 2011). Perhaps many of these lives lost will be affected by a weakened immune system stemming from a mental illness? This newly researched topic is opening the door for the health community and those afflicted by clinical depression to better understand the link between depression and its subsequent dysfunctional immune system.

Nearly 20 million adults in the United States alone suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, and that number is only representational of the patients who actively report their occurrence of symptoms.

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Many more are unable to afford or even find the aid they need to treat their mental health disorders. According to Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser (2002), “Depression is the most common psychiatric illness.” Clinical depression has long been understood and treated solely as a psychiatric illness, however more research has emerged about its somatic ramifications.

Depression includes a variety of both psychological and somatic symptoms that differs with every case.

Psychiatrists and doctors often utilize the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”) to diagnose mental health disorders and suggest a treatment journey. Because the mind is so complex, there are a wide array of treatment plans and medications for nearly every psychological disorder. Antidepressants medication and talk-therapy are among the most commonly prescribed treatments for mental health afflictions.

According to WebMD (2018), Major Depressive Disorder affects twice as many women than men, traced back to female changes in hormones and pregnancy.

Historically, however, women exhibiting these symptoms were treated as hysterical by psychiatrists until fairly recently. Today, a general stigma around mental illness remains and permeates through society, namely the United States. Depression and other mental illnesses are often treated without the same urgency as physical ailments. This country also lacks many public mental healthcare facilities, such as rehab centers and psychiatric wards for those unable to afford treatment. It is important to highlight new research on depression and raise awareness around mental illness in order to evolve the healthcare system to include more of those suffering from mental disorders and trauma.

Depression is widely treated solely in a psychiatric manner, yet treating depression with a holistic approach will improve the body’s overall somatic health. In this paper, research about the interconnection of immunology and depression will be presented in order to better understand the effects and possible treatments. Clinical depression has a similar effect on the immune system to chronic stress, causing a hyperactive inflammatory response and degrading the success of the immune system, even to the point of vaccination potency.

To understand the effects of depression on the body’s immune system, one must first be introduced to the diverse symptoms of depression, the basic operations of the human immune system, and the body’s reaction to stress. Depression Overview

Symptoms and severity of such symptoms vary among people, however most with depression report feeling in a generally low mood and loss of interest throughout their daily activities. Although most people experience instances of sadness or periods of difficulty, clinical depression is more serious and chronic. According to the DSM-5, symptoms of depression must present themselves for at least a two-week period in order to be clinically diagnosable. Other symptoms of depression include hypersomnia or insomnia, restlessness or sluggishness, fatigue, inability to concentrate, anhedonia, weight loss or weight gain, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm (Mayo Clinic Staff 2018). Symptoms may escalate others, such as an untreated depression case spiraling into a drug or alcohol addiction. Likewise, lack of motivation and constant fatigue may lead to social isolation. This interconnectedness of symptoms perpetuates the depressive cycle and feelings of hopelessness. These symptoms may amount to a single depressive episode or appear chronically throughout a patients’ life, which is more detrimental to the immune system functioning, much like chronic stress.

Because of the wide range of symptoms and complexity of the human psyche, depression may be caused by many variables. The most common perceived causation of depression is a biochemical imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain needed to function properly (Leonard 2001), including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Antidepressant medication is a leading treatment for clinical depression; typically, neurotransmitter reuptake inhibitors maintain a higher level of mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, seemingly easing the symptoms of depression (Leonard 2001). This chemical imbalance can be triggered through traumatic experiences or genetically inherited. Other sources of depression arise from hormonal imbalances, notably in females, and environmental circumstances such as seasonally affective depression. Immune System Overview

The body’s immune system is an intricate network of barriers and defense mechanisms protecting against unwanted foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. In this system there are three key processes in protecting the body: the innate immune system, the antibody-mediated response, and the cell-mediated response.

The innate immune system is the first line of defense, including the body’s physical and chemical barriers. A key response in this system is inflammatory response, which is likewise a notable aspect in the stress response that will be covered next. As the body is invaded by an unwanted substance, it ignites the inflammatory response to attack the intruder and speed up healing. Four aspects of inflammation are pain, swelling, redness, and heat; each of these responses force further blood flow into the area and encourage the presence of cytokines. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are small proteins released by cells to signal other helpers, like phagocytes ad Natural Killer Cells, to mobilize.

After the antigen has been destroyed, anti-inflammatory cytokines, with the assistance of suppressor T-cells, are activated and this signals the body’s immune defense to retreat from the healed area. (Pearson Learning Solutions 2017) Thus, cytokines and their role in inflammation, if in balance, protect the body from pathogens and boost overall immunity. Both the antibody-mediated immune response and the cell-mediated immune response rely on a multitude of similar-functioning cells to discern non-self cells or abnormally-functioning self cells and destroy them. Each of these intricate processes rely heavily […]

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