Depression is a medical illness that causes persistent feelings of sadness, loss of interest, hopelessness and inadequacy. Many people may not even realize they suffer from depression. Others who are aware of their condition, often don’t tell their family or seek treatment because they feel embarrassed or awkward. Depression has been linked to heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer. Many now believe that depression can also be a contributing factor in obesity.
In the world of research the link between depression and obesity is like a paradox. On one side you have researchers arguing that people who suffer from obesity become depressed because obesity causes them to have a poor self-image and poor self-esteem, which causes them to isolate themselves socially. People who are obese are often stereotyped, bullied, criticized and discriminated against, thus reinforcing the poor image they already have of themselves. Obesity also causes heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. All of which researchers have already connected to depression.
The other viewpoint is that people who are depressed are high risk of becoming obese. Researchers backing this theory argue that chemical imbalances, primarily the hormones cortisol and serotonin in the brain, are what lead to obesity. Cortisol is a hormone that stimulates appetite, glucose production and fat storage. It is produced by the brain in times of stress. For a person who is under constant stress, this is like an opened flood gate. The cortisol keep pouring into the body, causing the person to have the desire to eat and causing the food to be stored in the form of fat.
It has also been found that people who suffer from depression have a decreased amount of the hormone serotonin in the brain. Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter (messenger) in the brain. It has influence over psychological and body functions (i.e. mood, sexual desire/function, appetite, sleep, memory/learning, temperature regulation, and social behaviors). In an attempt to restore serotonin levels to normal, people unknowingly overeat.
It is possible that both of these answers are correct. Obesity and depression share with one another many common risk factors and treatments in the form of lifestyle changes. The risk factors for both include the following:
- Poor diet/exercise
- predisposed through family history
- problems dealing with stress, emotions, boredom
- health problems- cancer, diabetes, heart disease, problems with sleep
- low self-esteem, low self-image, highly self-critical, pessimism
The lifestyle changes recommended are:
- regular exercise
- eating well
- 7-9 hours of sleep
- finding social support
- reduction of stress
Research is starting to show that obese people who undergo treatment for depression are more apt to change their lifestyle, resulting in improvement in weight. The same can also be found in people who undergo treatments such as bariatric surgery to deal with their obesity. These people experience reduction in their depression symptoms.
One thing is for certain, researchers will continue to search for the connection between depression and obesity. Until a definitive link is found it recommended that people suffering from these conditions undergo treatment from a doctor.