by Adrian Drew
When people consider common symptoms of depression, high blood pressure isn't one that typically springs to mind. Instead, most tend to think of emotional symptoms like feelings of hopelessness, debilitating sadness, and reduced self-esteem. The truth, however, is that depression and blood pressure elevation, also known as hypertension, can indeed be connected.
Why is this? A lot of it has to do with a sometimes useful but often problematic hormone called cortisol—the stress hormone. Cortisol triggers processes in your body that help you respond to stress, such as increasing your heart rate or changing your level of alertness. The constant stress of depression, as well as any associated anxiety, can signal the body to produce more cortisol.
In small doses, cortisol can be beneficial. Normal levels are released when we wake up in the morning, for example, and seek to heighten our alertness in preparation for the day ahead. In excess, however, cortisol can give rise to a number of issues, such as weight gain or a weakening of the immune system.
So how exactly does cortisol work, and what does it have to do with depression and high blood pressure?
As noted above, it's cortisol that links depression with blood pressure, since cortisol is typically released when our brains perceive danger. This natural evolutionary response prepares us to either fight a threat or run from it through a number of different mechanisms—a process typically referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response. Our heart, for example, is instructed to pump more blood to muscles essential to our survival in order for us to better tackle a perceived threat effectively. Cortisol and adrenaline are also released into the bloodstream, heightening our reflexes and preparing us for the coming challenge.
This fight or flight response had its uses back when physical danger was a part of our ancient ancestors' day-to-day lives. This mechanism would have enabled cave-dwelling early humans to outrun or confront perils like saber-toothed tigers and other animals looking to harm us. Now, however, it can be problematic, particularly where depression is concerned. Cortisol is released at times when our life isn't in physical danger, and it's often responsible for the feelings of anxiety and unease experienced by those with depression. The body perceives danger and reacts how it sees fit—by preparing us for a fight that doesn't come.
Since stress and anxiety are both common symptoms of depression (or in some cases, contributors to depression), an individual with depression may have higher levels of cortisol. Since cortisol is responsible for increasing blood pressure to prepare us to confront danger, a person with depression may develop higher blood pressure as a result.
Thankfully, both depression and high blood pressure are treatable. While treating depression may not resolve high blood pressure, hypertension alone can sometimes be treated with a few lifestyle modifications, such as increasing exercise, eating a healthy diet, and cutting back on alcohol. For many, though, the best way to treat hypertension is through medication. It's important to work with your doctor to understand the best way to treat your hypertension in order to minimize the risk of damage to your heart, brain, kidneys, and other organs.
Depression is a medical condition that requires intervention and cannot be eliminated through lifestyle changes alone. Talk therapy and medication are two of the most common treatments for depression. Of course, since every individual is different, these treatments might not work as well for some as they do for others. In cases where talk therapy and antidepressants haven't been effective, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy is another option.
TMS therapy uses FDA-cleared devices that emit a gentle magnetic pulse to stimulates areas of the brain responsible for mood regulation. Over the course of six to nine weeks, TMS therapy can help to mitigate common symptoms of depression and work to boost an individual's mental well-being. To learn more about whether TMS therapy is right for you, schedule a no-cost consultation.
If Covid-19 and social isolation are heightening your symptoms of depression, Greenbrook TMS therapy may be able to help. At Greenbrook, we specialize in TMS therapy — an FDA-cleared, non-invasive treatment for treatment-resistant depression and OCD without harmful side effects. See if TMS therapy is right for you by clicking here to take a brief assessment: