The Insidious Connection Between Depression, Unwanted Weight Gain and Obesity

overweight man

If you’re struggling with weight gain and depression, you know how difficult life can be. Perhaps your depression symptoms make it hard to get out of bed, much less exercise. Maybe you’ve experienced feelings of sadness, shame, self-loathing, or guilt about your body since the pounds have been slowing accumulating. Depression all-too-frequently occurs with both unwanted weight gain and obesity. Understanding that there’s an insidious connection can help you stop blaming yourself and empower you to take the necessary steps to break the cycle and regain your physical and emotional well-being.

Depression Can Trigger Weight Gain

Research has shown that depression can be a trigger for unwanted weight gain. In a study that spanned 20 years, individuals who initially reported more depression symptoms gained weight faster than those who reported having fewer symptoms. There are several reasons why this particular mental health disorder can cause the scale to creep upward:

  • Poor sleep: Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia, frequent waking and early morning awakening, are a common symptom of depression. You may have trouble falling asleep or have difficulty staying asleep throughout the night when you’re depressed. Poor sleep affects key hormones that tell your body when it’s hungry and when it’s full. Over time, the hormonal disturbance leads to increased weight. Lack of sleep also makes a person less able to adequately deal with stress, which can also contribute to overeating.
  • Increased appetite:  Changes in appetite are a common symptom of depression.  For some people, it triggers a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss.  However, for others, it may cause an increase in appetite, leading to unwanted weight gain.
  • Comfort eating: Poor eating habits often accompany depression. When you’re depressed, you may reach for certain food in an attempt to self-soothe feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety or shame. Negative feelings can cause you to crave unhealthy “comfort” foods, which are typically high in sugar or fat.  These foods are comforting for a reason – they temporarily boost your serotonin levels, which in turn makes you feel good for a short while (as serotonin is a known mood-booster).  But over time, those high calorie foods lead to extra pounds.
  • Low energy or fatigue: One of the most profound symptoms of depression is a lack of energy to do everyday things. When you’re depressed, simply getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an impossible task.  Preparing healthy meals can take too much energy, so instead, you choose to eat whatever snack foods are available or indulge in calorie-heavy, high-sodium takeout from a local eatery. Low energy levels also make it hard to get out and exercise, so not only are you taking in more calorie-dense food, you’re not doing anything to help burn off the excess calories.
  • Stress: The chronic stress of struggling with depression and managing all your daily responsibilities can slow your metabolism.  It also increases certain hormones, particularly cortisol, that lead to undesired weight gain – especially in the abdominal area.
  • Antidepressants: The prescription drugs used to relieve symptoms of depression can also play a supporting role in weight gain for some people. For example, tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, are notorious for having weight gain as a side effect.  Even some of the SSRIs, such as Paxil and Prozac (originally touted for its weight loss benefits), can spur weight gain for a small percentage of individuals.

The exact cause of weight gain in individuals with depression is not always clear.  In many cases, it’s a combination of the above factors that lead to increased weight.  Over time, chronic or recurring depression may play a role in the development of obesity for some individuals.

Weight Gain Can Trigger Depression

While depression (along with antidepressant medication) can cause unwanted weight gain in some people, the reverse is true as well: Excess weight – and especially obesity – can also cause depression to develop. For example, some research suggests a biological link between depression and obesity. Researchers believe the excessive fat cells in obese individuals release hormones that cause chronic inflammation.  The inflammation, in turn, lays the foundation for the development for mental health problems such as depression.

Additionally, depression symptoms can begin to develop when an overweight or obese individual struggles with low self-esteem or feels embarrassed by his or her appearance. Bullies, whether in the schoolyard or at the workplace, can contribute to these symptoms as well by victimizing those who struggle with their weight.

Breaking the Cycle

In many cases, there’s not a clear-cut answer to the question: Does depression trigger weight gain or does the weight gain cause depression? However, in order to regain both your physical and emotional well-being, both conditions must be addressed. If one is left untreated, it can make it much more difficult to treat the other.

Here are several things you can do if you’re battling both depression and unwanted weight:

Seek therapy: Depression is a psychiatric disorder that is best treated by a qualified mental health professional.  Treatment typically includes talk therapy, in which you’ll work with a therapist to help you identify and change the unhealthy ways you deal with negative thoughts and feelings. A skilled therapist will also help you learn practical ways to deal with the distorted beliefs and irrational thought patterns that play a major role in depression symptoms.

Antidepressants may also be part of your treatment. As mentioned earlier, antidepressants can cause weight gain in some people.  Discuss any concerns about gaining unwanted weight with your treatment provider, carefully weighing the potential benefits and side effects of medication. It may be possible to find an effective antidepressant that doesn’t contribute to weight gain. However, if you do start taking an antidepressant, don’t abruptly stop the medication or change the dosage or frequency without first consulting your physician.

Be active: Exercise can be beneficial for both depression and thwarting (or reducing) unwanted weight gain.  Exercise burns calories and builds muscle. When combined with healthy eating, it can help shed unwanted pounds.  However, it also naturally releases endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that help improve your mood.  Many therapists advise patients, regardless of weight, to exercise as part of a depression treatment strategy.  In fact, research has shown that regular aerobic exercise is just as effective in reducing symptoms of depression as taking an antidepressant (and without the side effects).

Work with your doctor to find an exercise regimen that is safe and doable. For example, if you’re obese, you may need to start out with a simple walking program. Over time, you can adjust how much you walk by doing it more frequently or increasing the pace.  Find physical activities you enjoy, whether it’s swimming or biking, so you’re more likely to keep up with a regular exercise routine.  Having a workout partner to keep you accountable and make exercising more fun will help to keep you motivated as well.

Eat well: Food is fuel for the entire body, including your brain. Foods that are heavy in excess fat or empty carbohydrates, like white breads and pastries, can make you feel sluggish.  Sugary foods will also spike your insulin levels and wreak havoc with your moods. Eliminate processed foods and sweets, and replace them with a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, as well as proper portions of good fats, like those found in avocados, coconut, or olive oil. If necessary, consult a nutritionist to develop a healthy eating plan—not a temporary diet—that you can enjoy long term.

Manage your stress: Trying to cope with too much stress can trigger depression and overeating. Find ways to reduce your stress to manageable levels. For instance, seek couples therapy for a struggling relationship or cut back on volunteer responsibilities. Other common stress reduction techniques include deep breathing exercises, yoga and meditation. Regular exercise is also great for reducing stress.

Don’t allow depression, excess weight, or obesity to stop you from living a happy, full life. Consult a mental health professional about managing depression symptoms, and work with your doctor about safely losing unwanted pounds and managing your weight. You deserve to be both happy and healthy.

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