Is Stress the Missing Link Between Depression and Obesity?

In a recent study examining the relationship between obesity and depression, researchers determined that depression, especially in teenage girls, likely contributes to health problems like cardiovascular disease because of associated weight gain, especially around the abdominal area, over time. The study was designed to investigate whether depression precedes obesity or vice versa, and demonstrated a mind-body connection between these conditions which sheds light on the way we approach obesity prevention and treatment.

By treating obesity solely as a physical condition that is preventable or reversible solely through diet and exercise, we ignore the psycho-emotional state which may engender lifestyle behavior which can lead to excessive weight gain. People with chronic depression, i.e. those who experience pervasive feelings of sadness or hopelessness, tend to eat more, exercise less, and take antidepressant medications associated with weight gain. Sleeplessness, which often accompanies depression, can exacerbate tendencies to eat sugary foods and be physically inactive, perhaps making the depression-obesity link a cyclic phenomenon.

Belinda Needham, an associate professor of sociology that conducted the study, noted that there may be a third underlying factor causing both conditions: chronic stress. Chronic stress arousal can cause depressive symptoms which can lead to weight gain, as well as excess release of cortisol, a stress hormone which stimulates and encourages the storage of body fat, especially in the abdominal region.

Needham’s study illustrates the importance of stress management in preventing and treating depression, obesity, and obesity-related conditions like cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Engaging in regular, moderate exercise is a great way to alleviate stress and depressive symptoms, as well as boost metabolism and help you sleep better. Mind-body practices like yoga, tai chi and meditation can also be especially helpful stress management techniques. Consuming fish or fish oil, which contain omega-3s, is another way to fight depressive symptoms (and even bipolar disorder), and eating foods that are low-glycemic (those that do not cause excess insulin to circulate through the body) can also help prevent storage of abdominal fat. Lastly, alternative treatments like massage and acupuncture can also help relieve stress.


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