Weight and Mental Health

Can Mental Health Affect Weight

Max Carmody, MSc

Mental health can affect weight, mental illness can increase the occurrence of comfort eating,  anxiety, and depression, and various psychotropic medications all have the potential to contribute to weight gain. 

From my own experience, as I talked about in my opening blog post, I know that mental health can absolutely affect weight. I gained about 40 pounds over the last year, that I am almost positive I would not have gained if my mental health had been better. Normally I am pretty good about monitoring my weight and making sure that it doesn’t get too out of hand.

However, over the past year, I just ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And that involved eating a ton of crap, for me. I was eating a lot of instant, frozen stuff. I was not exercising at all. I normally like to keep a scale, not necessarily to weigh myself every single day, but to tell if things are getting out of hand, but my situation was not even stable enough really to keep a scale with me.

The main reason that I was eating so poorly and not exercising and not taking care of myself, was just because I felt so bad so often. I would have a lot of bad days, and on the bad days eating healthy or exercising were very far from my mind. I could have done better on my good days, but I had so many bad days that I didn’t even want to bother on the good days. 

I was doing a lot of comfort eating. When I felt bad, eating was one of the only things that made me feel better, and it made me feel better immediately. And I didn’t have the health or the energy to make nice, healthy meals, all I could muster was the frozen stuff.

Comfort Eating and Feeling Unable to Exercise

I mentioned comfort eating earlier as a major reason why I myself had gained 40 pounds. When I feel bad, I eat, and I think that a lot of people do the same thing. 

According to Nova Physicians a lot of people start their weight loss journey very excited and hopeful about the future. Then their weight loss turns out to be more difficult than they thought, and does not meet their expectations. Those people who struggle with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or other conditions may binge for the comfort it brings after a thwarted effort to lose weight. 

When you are eating in response to emotions, it’s called “emotional eating”. Eating lights up the reward system in our brains and makes us feel better. A lot of people struggling with mental illness have pretty dysregulated reward systems. 

Food is such a big part of so many things we do, and often takes a central role in our lives. It is normal for emotional connections to be formed to food. People with depression and anxiety often have more intense negative emotions than those without mental health issues. So it makes sense that they would be more likely to eat for comfort than others.

Depression and Weight

Depression can actually lead to either weight loss, or weight gain. It really depends a lot on the person. When some people are depressed, they lose their appetites, and don’t feel like eating. When some people are depressed, it makes them want to eat more. 

Depression and weight are linked in all sorts of interesting ways that can come from social, environmental, and biological causes. For example people who have had financial insecurity or troubled childhoods are at risk both of depression and obesity.  

One symptom of depression is the loss of pleasure and interest in activities that once provided pleasure. If something goes wrong with the reward system in your brain, it can lead to seeking more food, or more sweeter foods, to make up for the missing pleasure. 

Depression can cause problems with impulse control. People who are depressed are more likely to have unprotected sex. These issues with impulse control could lead to eating scoop after scoop of ice cream, without regard for the consequences. Some very depressed patients may also not eat because they don’t believe that they “deserve” food. If you are also interested in learning how PTSD can lead to weight gain, you can find an article here that I wrote on the topic.

Anxiety and Weight

There has been a lot of research establishing a connection between anxiety and obesity. Anxiety and Stress may contribute to weight gain.

Increased levels of cortisol, which result from anxiety, can cause fat to build up in the stomach. The longer somebody is anxious, the more weight they can gain. Digestion changes due to anxiety can also lead to weight gain. Anxiety can cause a lack of energy and fatigue, this can cause an individual to be less active. And similar to what we talked about earlier with depression, when people are experiencing a lot of inner emotional turmoil due to anxiety, they can turn to emotional eating, or comfort eating. 

In an online poll conducted by Anxiety Center, 60% of all participants had gained weight due to anxiety. Anxiety can cause the body to become stress response hyperstimulated. Hyperstimulation can tax the body more than usual, so the body needs more fuel. The body is looking for instant fuel, and so craves more sugars and fats. The cortisol released aso causes higher levels of blood sugar, which can lead to weight gain.

Similar to the case with depression, some people actually lose weight when they are anxious, they get too anxious to eat at all. Hyperstimulation also causes the metabolism to speed up (although that speed up is often surpassed by the desire to eat high sugar foods).

Medication and Weight

Medications prescribed from any sort of mental health condition from depression to anxiety, to bipolar disorder, have the potential to cause rapid and uncontrollable weight gain. I experienced this myself, when after taking one medication for mental health reasons for only a couple of weeks, I had gained about 14 pounds, even though I was generally eating pretty well and exercising at the time. 

The greatest risk of weight gain can come from “various antidepressants (eg amitriptyline, mirtazapine), antipsychotics (eg olanzapine, clozapine), and mood stabilizers (eg lithium, valproate). Antipsychotic drugs can make people hungrier, so they eat more. They can also raise the amount of sugar, and fat in your blood. 

If you are looking for some ways to improve your own mental health, you can purchase a concise e-book on the topic here for only $4.99.

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