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Ulcerative Colitis and Mental Health: what to Know and Where to Get Help

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Overview

Living with ulcerative colitis (UC) requires taking good care of your physical health. Taking your medication and avoiding foods that worsen symptoms can bring relief from diarrhea and abdominal pain, and even lead to remission.

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But managing your physical health is only one aspect of living with UC. You also need to take care of your mental health.

The daily challenge of living with UC can have a negative impact on your mood and outlook. Whether you’ve been recently diagnosed with UC or you’ve had the condition for years, you may experience bouts of anxiety and depression.

Interestingly, rates of depression are higher among people who have UC compared to other diseases and the general population. Given the higher risk for mental health problems, it’s important to know how to recognize signs of depression and anxiety.

If left untreated, mood disorders can become worse and make it harder to cope with your chronic condition.

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Read on to learn about the connection between mental health and UC, and where to get help.

How are ulcerative colitis and mental health connected?

UC is an unpredictable disease. You might feel energetic and well one day, but experience debilitating pain and diarrhea a few days later.

The constant ups and downs of this condition can make it difficult to plan ahead or complete everyday activities. You might have trouble keeping up with work or school, or it might be a challenge to maintain an active social life.

UC is a chronic, long-term condition that doesn’t have a cure yet. Most people living with UC experience symptoms on and off for their whole life. The unpredictable nature of this disease can significantly affect quality of life.

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Depending on the severity of your symptoms, it can feel as if you’re being held hostage by your own body. For these reasons, some people living with UC may develop anxiety and depression.

Is there a link between inflammation and depression?

Some researchers also believe that the connection between UC and mental health extends beyond the unpredictable and chronic nature of this condition.

UC is an inflammatory bowel disease, and there’s evidence suggesting a link between inflammation and depression.

Inflammation is your body’s natural response to foreign substances and infections. When your body is under attack, your immune system stimulates an inflammatory response. This prompts the healing process.

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Problems occur when your body remains in an inflamed state due to an overactive immune system. Prolonged, chronic inflammation can lead to brain and tissue damage. It’s been linked to a variety of diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

Depression isn’t an inflammatory disorder. But inflammatory pathways in the brain can interfere with neurotransmitters. This reduces your level of serotonin, a chemical that plays a role in happiness and well-being.

Since UC is marked by chronic inflammation, this might explain the link between UC and mental health problems.

In a 2017 study, a 56-year-old man with major depressive disorder sought treatment with psychiatric care and antidepressants. After receiving treatment, his mental health symptoms didn’t improve.

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He was later diagnosed with UC and began conventional treatment to reduce inflammation. Soon after, his depression symptoms improved and he had less suicidal thoughts.

Based on this outcome, some researchers believe that treating chronic inflammation may help improve mental health symptoms.

Signs you should seek help for your mental health

Everyone experiences periods of sadness at some point in their lives. But it’s important to recognize when a mental health problem may require professional help.

Signs and symptoms of a mental health problem include:

  • persistent sadness or a feeling of emptiness
  • feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or guilt
  • loss of interest in your favorite activities
  • extreme fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss
  • irritability
  • suicidal thoughts
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • isolation or withdrawal from friends
  • a change in eating habits
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Mental health problems can also cause physical symptoms like headaches and backaches.

If you sometimes experience one or more of these symptoms, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health illness. But you should see a doctor if you have several of the above symptoms for a prolonged period of time, or if you have suicidal thoughts.

Where to get help

Speaking with your doctor is the first step you should take to get help for anxiety or depression associated with UC.

Treatment may include adjusting your medication to better control inflammation. Your doctor may also prescribe an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication to improve your mood.

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They may also recommend therapy with a mental health professional. These sessions can supply you with coping methods and stress management skills. You’ll also learn how to change your thinking patterns and dispel negative thoughts that worsen depression.

In addition to conventional therapy, home remedies and lifestyle changes may help improve your mental health.

Examples of healthy lifestyle changes include:

  • avoiding alcohol or drugs
  • exercising regularly
  • knowing your limitations
  • spending time with friends and family
  • engaging in enjoyable activities
  • finding a local support group

Help is available for depression and anxiety. Along with speaking with your doctor, friends, and family, take advantage of some of these other resources available to you:

  • Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation
  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • MentalHealth.gov
  • National Alliance on Mental Health

Takeaway

UC symptoms may come and go throughout your life. While there’s no cure for UC, it’s possible to treat the depression and anxiety that could accompany it.

Speak with your doctor or a mental health professional and discuss how you feel. Depression and anxiety won’t go away overnight, but the right treatment and support can improve your symptoms and quality of life.

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