Home Page
Consumers' Section

E-mail this page   Printable View

Depression and Anxiety: Overview and Risk Factors

Sadness, anxiety, and mood swings occur normally in the course of any eventful life. However, they become problematic when they are severe enough to interfere with normal functioning, relationships, work or school performance, and other important activities of daily life.

Depression and anxiety are distinct disorders, but there are many similarities between them. They are discussed together here because their nutritional considerations are similar.

Depression is a common syndrome marked by sadness and a feeling of hopelessness. Additional symptoms may include poor concentration, feelings of guilt, sleep disturbances, appetite disturbances, sexual dysfunction, and hallucinations. The cause of depression is believed to involve abnormal levels of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain (e.g., serotonin and norepinephrine), abnormal hormone levels (e.g., cortisol), genetic traits, and environmental and psychological factors.

Anxiety is marked by tension, excessive worry, and irritability. The brain chemicals norepinephrine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) may be involved in its development, and both genetic and environmental factors are believed to play a role.

Risk Factors

The following factors are associated with increased risk:

  • Gender: Females are more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
  • Family history
  • Inadequate social supports: Examples include living alone or having few friends.
  • Stressful life events: These might include retirement or the death of a loved one.
  • Medical illness: Some studies show that up to 30 percent of patients who visit a physician with a physical symptom had either a depressive or anxiety disorder. Common medical illnesses associated with depression include heart disease, cancer, neurologic disease, and hormonal disease (e.g., hypothyroidism). Common medical illnesses associated with anxiety include heart disease, arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, mitral valve prolapse, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hyperthyroidism, hypoglycemia, Cushing's syndrome, Parkinson's disease, and cancer.
  • Medications: Drugs associated with anxiety include bronchodilators (e.g., Albuterol), antidepressants, various blood pressure medications, steroids, psychostimulants (e.g., Ritalin), over-the-counter medications that contain caffeine, and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed).
  • Drug intoxication or withdrawal: Drugs that may contribute to anxiety include caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, and nicotine. Some medications that are used to treat anxiety, such as benzodiazepines (e.g., alprazolam or Xanax), can cause rebound anxiety, in which individuals feel more anxious after the medication wears off than they did before taking it. This often leads to a cycle of increasing use.

Suicide is a risk in depressive illnesses, as in other psychiatric conditions. The risk factors for suicide include:

  • A history of suicide attempts
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Family history of suicide or attempts
  • Access to weapons
  • Substance abuse
  • Underlying medical illness
  • Male gender
  • Increasing age


Depression and Anxiety: Diagnosis and Treatment >>