Depression and Anxiety Now Considered As Harmful As Smoking and Obesity

Could any two things be marketed as greater health risks in America than smoking or obesity? It turns out there’s a simple answer to that question: yes, there could be. In fact, new research suggests depression and anxiety may both put people at greater risks to their physical health, increasing risks of heart diseases and arthritis. 

A new study carried out by researchers at the University of California San Francisco looked at the data from a previous government study that included 15,418 retirees. Their average age was 68-years old, with depression and anxiety symptoms surveyed in interviews.  The current smoking status, weight, medical diagnoses, and somatic symptoms on two occasions over four years were also examined for each participant. Once all that data was collected, the results were published in the journal Health Psychology. Here’s what they learned: 

Symptoms of depression and anxiety predict a higher likelihood of almost all medical illnesses and somatic symptoms. 

In this particular study, the subjects with high levels of anxiety and depression had a 65 percent increased risk of a heart condition, an increased risk of more than 60 percent of having a stroke, a 50 percent higher risk of having high blood pressure, and an astonishing 87 percent higher risk of developing arthritis. 

The latter disease, for example, didn’t reveal a newly discovered link to mental health. Inflammation — a chronic symptom of arthritis — is the body’s natural response to fighting off potential infections and bacteria. Your immune system releases chemical messengers called cytokines, the messengers within your body that regulate inflammation. According to Dr. Robert Zembroski, MD, a specialist in functional medicine, those cytokines can wreak havoc on neurotransmitters and affect the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that plays a heavy role in regulating and processing emotions. This can lead to triggering anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations in some people. Research is backing these findings up by revealing higher levels of inflammation in people suffering from things like depression, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD. 

“Dysfunctions in the amygdala have been well-known and well-documented to create OCD, anxiety, [and] fearful thoughts,” Zembroski says. 

"These increased odds are similar to those of participants who are smokers or are obese," said senior author Aoife O'Donovan, Ph.D., "However, for arthritis, high anxiety and depression seem to confer higher risks than smoking and obesity.”

And while those risks alone are reason enough for pause (and maybe even worry), the study also found that even the seemingly simplest of health speed bumps have an increased risk that coincides with anxiety and depression as well. Some common, sometimes simple everyday somatic symptoms like a headache, stomach upset, back pain, and shortness of breath were all also found to occur at a greater rate when participants had high levels of anxiety and depression as opposed to those who didn’t. And again, those risks were higher than those associated with smoking or obesity. For example, experiencing headaches comes at a 161 percent increased risk for people with depression and anxiety as opposed to no increased risk for those participants who smoked or were obese. 

If there was any reprieve from the results and associated health risks, it was that the study found no link between depression and anxiety and an increased risk of cancer. 

"Our findings are in line with a lot of other studies showing that psychological distress is not a strong predictor of many types of cancer," O'Donovan said. "On top of highlighting that mental health matters for a whole host of medical illnesses, it is important that we promote these null findings. We need to stop attributing cancer diagnoses to histories of stress, depression, and anxiety."

"To our knowledge this is the first study that directly compared anxiety and depression to obesity and smoking as prospective risk factors for disease onset in long-term studies," said first author Andrea Niles, Ph.D., who says the findings of this study support a need for health care practitioners to give greater attention and care to these mental health conditions.

"Anxiety and depression symptoms are strongly linked to poor physical health, yet these conditions continue to receive limited attention in primary care settings, compared to smoking and obesity," she added. 

Of course, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression open doors to many other health risks. Take anxiety’s link to poor sleep, for example. At Neuroscience 2018, an annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience held in San Diego, California, research was presented that suggested a strong link between anxiety and sleep loss. It showed that brain activity following sleep deprivation mirrored brain activity indicative of anxiety disorders. Specifically, the brain’s fight or flight center, the amygdala, is “aroused” during sleep deprivation. At this same time, other research presented that regions of the brain responsible for “emotion-generating” and “emotion-regulating” are particularly active during periods of sleep deprivation.

And while sleep deprivation is just one symptom or a side effect of anxiety, it’s a simple example of the snowball effect it all has on your health, with better brain function, muscle recovery, hormone balance, longevity, and even fat burning reliant on your quality or quantity of rest. After about 19 hours without sleep, your brain starts to function significantly slower. Your reaction time, attention, memory, and mental accuracy all drop significantly — the equivalent of having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent. Round it out to a full 24 hours without sleep and that brain function is on par with somebody who is legally drunk with a 0.08 BAC. This is because while you’re sleeping, your brain is busy cleaning away and flushing out cellular waste, prepping you for quicker mental processing and even a better mood. As for the rest of your body, muscles recover and fat is burned while you’re asleep. Testosterone and growth hormone levels drop, impairing your protein synthesis so you struggle to build more muscle when you get poor sleep or inconsistent sleep. When cortisol levels rise, fat storage rises as well and muscle mass starts to break down. 

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