Weight and Mental Health

Why do Depressed People Gain Weight?

Max Carmody, MSc

Depressed people gain weight for a variety of reasons. These taking antidepressant drugs that cause weight gain, emotional eating, decreased interest in physical activity and exercise, increased levels of cortisol and inflammation, and increased appetite and craving carbs.

Depression is a common and serious mental illness. Globally, about 5% of adults suffer from depression. It negatively affects the way that somebody feels, the way they think, and the way they act. It can greatly decrease a person’s ability to function. Symptoms can be mild or severe or anywhere in between. Some symptoms include: feeling sad, losing interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much, increased fatigue. Others include: an inability to sit still or pacing, or slowing down physically, feeling worthless or guilty, difficulty concentrating, or thoughts of death or suicide.

Antidepressants and Weight Gain

Many antidepressants have the potential to cause weight gain. However, every person responds to antidepressants differently, and not every person who takes them gains weight. Some antidepressants seem more likely to cause weight gain than others. Certain tricylic antidepressants, including amitriptyline, imipramine, and doxepin are more likely to lead to weight gain. So are some monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI’s) such as phenelzine. Also paroxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), and mirtazapine, an atypical antidepressant that doesn’t fall in any other category. 

There have been multiple studies done on depression and weight gain. One study from Washington state found that weight gain persisted for at least 2 years after starting on antidepressants. Another UK study also found that weight gain persisted during long term treatment. 

It is not fully understood why antidepressants lead to weight gain in some people. There is one theory that both metabolism and hunger levels are affected. “Antidepressants interfere with serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates anxiety and mood while also controlling appetite. In particular, these changes may increase cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bread, pasta, and desserts”.

I personally have taken medications, not antidepressants, but psychiatric medications, that caused weight gain. For me, I don’t think that the drugs increased my cravings for food. I was not eating anymore on them than I had been before. One drug caused me to gain something like 14 pounds in less than 2 weeks, despite making no major changes to my diet and exercise routine, and I was eating quite healthy at the time. I immediately went off them.

Emotional Eating

Possibly the biggest cause of why depressed people gain weight, is emotional eating. I’m certainly guilty of emotional eating. I often use food as a crutch when I’m feeling bad. This caused me to gain about 40 pounds over the course of a year.

We don’t always eat purely for the purposes of satisfying physical hunger. Many of us turn to food for comfort and stress relief, or anytime we are feeling big, difficult emotions. And when we do that, it is typically calorie heavy comfort foods and junk food or sweets. Depression is a very uncomfortable, negative emotion, so it makes sense that many depressed people reach for food to comfort themselves.

People with depression are seeking any way possible to get rid of  sometimes intense feelings of sadness and despair. Eating is an easy way to boost mood, due to the fact that comfort food activates reward centers in the brain. This makes people want to eat more of the pleasurable food, even if they’re not hungry. This can sometimes lead to binge eating, when a few bites of food are not enough. The overeating itself can cause even more feelings of depression to develop, because the person no longer feels in control. If you feel that you are gaining weight due to emotional eating from mental illness, you can find an article here about how to lose weight with a mental illness.

Other Reasons Why Depression Leads to Weight Gain

One thing that depression can lead to is decreased physical activity and exercise. I know that when I’m feeling really bad I usually don’t exercise. Exercise can make you feel better once you get started with it, but I often have a hard time reminding myself of that when I feel terrible. But generally people are moving and exercising less because depression can cause you to feel tired and lose interest in things you once had interest in. 

As we’ve discussed in other articles, increased levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, especially in the belly area. The chronic stress caused by depression can also lead to cellular inflammation, and hormonal changes which lead to the accumulation of fat. Insomnia is a major symptom of depression (although some people sleep too much, some people cannot sleep) and poor sleep is a leading cause of weight gain.

Depression itself can lead to both increased hunger, and craving carbs. Leptin, a hormone responsible for regulating hunger, can increase during periods of depression, which can result in increased food intake. And carbs can increase your serotonin levels, which are low when you feel depressed, so your body may be looking to increase serotonin. If you want to read more about why mental health can affect weight, you can find a blog here that I wrote on the topic.

When Depression Leads to Weight Loss

Instead of weight gain, depression can also lead to weight loss in a lot of people. It can go either way, weight gain or weight loss, it just depends on the person. One of the main reasons for weight loss in depression, is that some people simply stop eating. Instead of overeating in response to difficult emotions, their reaction is to not eat enough.

Eating and drinking also can be very social things. A lot of people struggling with depression tend to isolate. This may mean fewer meals out, or less drinking with friends and family. Some medications, such as Prozac and Wellbutrin, rather than causing weight gain, may actually cause weight loss instead. This could be due to either reduced appetite or things like upset stomach or nausea. 

If you’re struggling with weight gain due to depression, you can find a good book on low carb diets here to help you with weight loss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *