The Weight of Stress, Anxiety & Depression

Does Stress, Anxiety, Depression and PTSD cause excessive weight fluctuations, OR is it the other way round? Good question! In a society enamored with thinness, many assume that being over weight is depressing — that if there is a cause and effect relationship, it is obesity that makes people feel down. But “there is an alternative explanation,” said Belinda L. Needham, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama, “and that is that being depressed actually makes you gain weight.”

Multiple studies have been carried on thousands of subjects (both women and men) in regard to this very question. Some studies have been conducted on people already known to be suffering from anxiety, depression and/or PTSD, and others have been carried out on people who do not present with any signs/symptoms of them. Let’s take a look at some facts…

In one study, participants who reported symptoms of depression, like feeling sad or hopeless gained weight more rapidly over a 15-year period and accrued more belly fat than those who appeared to be happier. In the study, which was published in The American Journal of Public Health, those who were obese initially may have been depressed but did not become more depressed over time.

In another study, the data from 5,115 men and women aged 18 to 30 who participated in the Coronary Artery Risk Develop in Young Adults, or Cardia, study was analysed. Participants took a survey to assess symptoms of depression every five years, and their body mass index and waist circumference were tracked over time.

The researchers found that while everyone gained some weight over a 15-year period, those who had a high body mass index did not become more depressed over time. Those who reported more symptoms of depression, however, put on more abdominal fat over time.

Thus bringing into focus a third underlying factor that is actually causing both the depression and obesity. The stress hormone Cortisol is also known as the “Stress Hormone”. This is the hormone that is activated during a “fight or flight” response and stimulates and promotes fat storage, especially in the abdominal area – and particularly so in women. This is because the body has evolved to store calories during times of stress….you never know when the Ice Age might suddenly hit again and food is no longer be available!

Historically we have tended to think of depression as an outcome. That something else causes us to become depressed. We don’t necessarily think of depression as the cause of other health outcomes – which it clearly can be!