We’re discovering more and more how mental health disorders and physical diseases can be related and sometimes cause the other to occur. Since the brain is an organ, just like the heart or the liver, it can be affected by disease just as much as they can. One common example of this is found in people who live with diabetes. Low blood sugar and high blood sugar both negatively affect the brain’s function. In the case of diabetes, this can lead to impaired cognitive function (1). However other diseases and ailments can result in changes to the brain’s chemistry, leading to mood swings and in some cases, depression.
Depression can often be a symptom of a thyroid disorder called hypothyroidism. While depression has many causes, and this isn’t always the case, mental health issues like depression can often be one of the most notable effects of hypothyroidism. Depression is a mental disorder that is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. The brain’s chronic under-production of “feel-good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine can cause persistent feelings of sadness, apathy, and hopelessness (2).
What is Hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is a relatively common condition caused by the thyroid gland under-producing the thyroid hormone called thyroxine. It is sometimes referred to as an “underactive thyroid.” Hypothyroidism is most common in women over 60 years old but can affect people of any demographic. This condition can sometimes result from an autoimmune disease, a strong reaction to certain medications, as a side effect of radiation therapy, or habitual time spent swimming in chlorinated pools. Most symptoms develop very slowly over time, so it can often be years before patients even begin to look for a diagnosis or treatment.
Thyroid hormones are vital to the body as they help with muscle control, bone health, and brain development. But most importantly, the thyroid hormone regulates the body’s metabolism and the rate of nutrient absorption. Without thyroid hormones, the body’s metabolism slows to a crawl, and noticeable weight gain begins. Other symptoms can include fatigue, swollen joints, thinning hair, muscle weakness, and in many cases, depression. Because hypothyroidism displays many of the same symptoms as depression, patients will often get diagnosed with major depressive disorder before their thyroid levels are tested (3).
How Can Hypothyroidism Cause Depression?
Though the connection between hypothyroidism and depression is still being researched, it has been well documented that depression and hypothyroidism often coexist in the same patient. Thyroid issues are rarely present without depressive symptoms. So, the current understanding is that the reduction of thyroxine also affects serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. Another potential explanation is that depression is a situational response to the physical changes in a person’s body. Seemingly unexplained weight gain, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and lethargy contribute to a person’s overall mood. We see this in athletes who experience injuries during their sports careers. Being unable to engage in their sport, having to go through testing, surgeries, and physical therapy, and not physically being able to do the things they want to do can easily lead to mental health issues like depression.
What Treatments are Available?
The good news is that both conditions can be treated! Hypothyroidism can be treated by taking synthetic thyroxine in the form of levothyroxine. Certain medications can boost the output of the thyroid glands. If you suspect that you may be experiencing symptoms of an underactive thyroid, request a blood test from your doctor to check the thyroxine levels in your blood. If the levels are confirmed to be unusually low, then a treatment plan should be able to begin right away. It’s best to request testing as early as possible because untreated hypothyroidism can wreak havoc on the body’s systems. If the metabolism slows too much and nutrient absorption drops, it’s easy to become malnourished and experience muscle atrophy (4).
In some cases, depressive symptoms can be lessened by taking thyroid-boosting medication. Fatigue will often lessen, and a sense of energy can return. While depression can also be treated with anti-depressants, and in some cases these are vital to properly taking care of yourself, you must not forget the value of proper nutrition and healthy living. Practice regular self-care, eat healthy foods and avoid those with preservatives and chemicals, and seek out traditional mental health support like therapy. Healthy nutrition can, in concert with these other treatments, recover from the impact that depression and hypothyroidism can have on your body. While a doctor can help guide you into a treatment plan with medications, he or she will often not recommend a healthy diet. That part is up to you. So take control of your health and make changes today to invest in your own health.
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression like chronic sadness, loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy, or feelings of hopelessness or impending doom, please reach out to a doctor or mental health provider for help. Dr. Daniel Amen of Amen Clinics has helped many people with depression by doing brain scans (his clinics actually examine the brains they are trying to fix) and offering patients a personal treatment plan with many natural, non-pharmaceutical interventions.
If left untreated, depression can be detrimental to your overall wellbeing and ultimately dangerous to your life. Listen and be aware of how your mind and body are doing daily. If you have any concerns, don’t be afraid to take charge of your own health - make an appointment and get yourself checked out. It’s better to be on the safe side, especially when it comes to your health and wellbeing.