How depression and weight gain are often related

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated January 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the world and is also highly treatable. Several symptoms characterize the disorder, including sleep problems, mood changes, and a lack of energy, among others. With the support of a mental health therapist and pharmacological interventions, many people living with a depressive disorder are able to manage their symptoms and enjoy their lives.

One widespread phenomenon seen in those living with depression is weight fluctuations. These fluctuations can be due to side effects of medications or physiological changes caused by the disorder.  Changes in appetite is a common symptom of depression that also may cause individuals to overeat or undereat. While weight gain can follow these changes in appetite, there are several ways to manage this with healthy lifestyle changes and support from a mental health therapist.

Keep reading to learn more about weight gain, depression, and how to positively address both. 

Could there be a link between your depression and weight gain?

Increased appetite and disordered eating

According to research, people experiencing depression may be at higher risk of being overweight or obese. While the cause of this correlation cannot be explained by one cause, there are several factors that can contribute to the weight gain and depression connection.  These include changes in appetite and disordered eating patterns.

The symptoms of depression, such as sadness and loneliness, may lead to eating in response to negative emotions, or emotional eating. For example, a study consisting of 3,735 individuals found that emotional eating during depressive episodes led to weight gain and associated increased body mass index and obesity. The study concluded that the combination of shorter periods of sleeping and higher emotional eating made people diagnosed with depression more vulnerable to weight gain.  

Binge eating is a psychiatric condition that can be comorbid with depression and is one of the primary reasons people overeat and gain weight. When binge eating, people typically eat larger portions than normal and at a faster pace. Overall, they may also often feel like they lack impulse control over their eating habits and are unable to stop this behavior. Some people engage in binge eating to alleviate symptoms of depression. However, the behavior of binge eating itself may lead to negative feelings, such as embarrassment and shame, which can worsen depressive symptoms and feelings of isolation.  

Changes in appetite and overeating related to depression might be connected to the brain's reward pathway. One study found that those who consume more food during a depressed state may have increased activity in certain parts of the brain when presented with food stimuli. This is very similar to how "comfort food" seems to work: foods that tend to be high in calories or sugar can create a temporary boost in the neurotransmitter hormone dopamine, which increases pleasure, and thus a temporary boost in one's emotional well-being.

By contrast, some people lose weight when experiencing depression. Those who have weak appetites when they are depressed may have reduced activity in the part of the brain responsible for interoception, which is the term for the ability to feel sensations like hunger or thirst.

Decreased physical activity

People living with major depressive disorder and moderate depression may find themselves lacking the motivation to go to work or participate in activities that they normally enjoy. For these individuals, going out and getting some exercise is challenging. This increasingly sedentary lifestyle can cause someone to gain weight, especially if they were active once before.

Much of this often has to do with energy expenditure. When people do not participate in any physical activity, even a light walk around the neighborhood, fewer calories are burned, and this excess energy is stored in the body, leading to weight gain.

Getty/PeopleImages

When paired with overeating, a lack of physical activity can lead to obesity because the individual is consuming more calories than their body can burn. Exercise can help, to an extent, by burning extra energy; however, dietary changes may also be required to address unwanted weight gain.

In addition to potentially leading to weight loss, studies have shown that exercise can be beneficial in treating symptoms of depression directly. Additionally, research shows that moderately intense physical activity can improve mood. Even low-intensity exercise may be helpful for those who cannot participate in more vigorous activities. There are several different mechanisms at work in this process. The most well-known idea is that exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, which can elevate one's sense of well-being. Further, neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are also boosted during and following exercise.

Psychological factors, like being distracted from depressing thoughts and having an enhanced sense of self-efficacy may also play a role in the way exercise helps to reduce depression. These positive psychological effects can boost motivation and help individuals stick to workout and dietary routines, and to feel more positive about themselves overall.

Stress hormones

In response to stressful events, the body is known to secrete hormones to help control specific processes. One of the primary chemicals related to this is cortisol, which is released from the adrenal glands. Cortisol has important functions in the body, like keeping blood pressure and glucose levels under control, and it can even help reduce inflammation. Low levels of cortisol can make you feel tired and weak. However, having cortisol levels that are too high can lead to a variety of changes in the body, including weight gain.

Excess cortisol due to stress can increase one's appetite, especially for foods that are high in fat and sugar, because they can provide emotional comfort. Elevated cortisol levels are also sometimes correlated with insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain. In one study, researchers found that individuals living with depression (and those at risk of developing it) exhibited higher cortisol levels in the morning and the evening compared to control groups. Another study showed that some people who have both a high reactivity to cortisol and a high level of stress in their lives may be at risk of chronic overeating.

Although food may provide temporary relief from stress or depression, using food as a form of self-medication can ultimately lead to other problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Studies have shown that learning to eat mindfully is one tool you can use to continue to eat healthfully and avoid unwanted weight gain even while living with depression. Additionally, exercise can help dampen the effects of stress and depression and effectively reduce the need to reach out for comfort foods.

Antidepressant medications

A psychiatrist or other qualified healthcare provider may prescribe antidepressants to treat the symptoms of depression, particularly when other forms of treatment (like talk therapy) are not effective alone. If you are on an antidepressant medication, continue to attend regular psychiatry sessions so that your psychiatrist can help you manage the side effects of the medication. 

The use of antidepressants in treating depression has been correlated with weight gain, but there is no known single reason why this occurs. Many factors can affect whether a person will gain weight after starting a course of antidepressants, including:

  • The type of medication (i.e., some medications may cause weight gain while others demonstrate weight-loss effects)
  • An improved mood, which can lead to increased interest in eating more in those who were not previously eating because they were depressed
  • The age of the patient, since weight gain is often a normal part of the aging process

If you have noticed unwanted weight gain after starting antidepressants, discuss the effect with your primary doctor or psychiatrist before stopping your medication. Abruptly ending the use of some antidepressant medications on a treatment plan can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Discontinuing their use should be supervised by a medical professional. Additionally, ensure that you always consult a doctor before deciding to start a new medication.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Could there be a link between your depression and weight gain?

Online therapy for depression

If you are hoping to make lifestyle changes and need support, consider talking to a mental health therapist. The licensed online therapists at BetterHelp are available to discuss a range of issues and strategies that can help you find the best path to making these positive changes. With online therapy, you can schedule sessions according to a time most convenient for you and without the commute. With assistance and support from a licensed therapist, you can continue to move forward in empowering yourself as you improve your mental health and general well-being.

The efficacy of online therapy for depression

Some people may find going to in-person sessions with a therapist to be a beneficial option for professional support. However, when you are managing symptoms of depression, attending in-person appointments may not be feasible. Online therapy is an accessible option that allows people to attend therapy in the comfort of their own home and according to their schedule. Studies have shown that online therapy sessions are a convenient and cost-efficient option that can be just as productive as in-person sessions in the treatment of depression. 

For example, in a study conducted by the University of Zurich, researchers discovered that internet-based psychotherapy was just as, if not more, effective than in-person therapy for treating moderate cases of adult depression. In fact, in 57% of participants in the online group, depression could no longer be detected, compared to 42% in the traditional therapy group. Psychotherapy is another term for talk therapy in which an individual works with a therapist to uncover and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. 

Takeaway

If you are living with depression, unwanted weight gain may be both uncomfortable and challenging to deal with, especially if you do not understand why it is occurring. Although depression and weight gain can be linked, by adjusting some lifestyle factors, such as sticking to a healthy, well-balanced diet and participating in regular exercise, you may be able to feel physically healthier while also improving your mood and overall feelings of well-being. If you are interested in further insight into your condition and symptoms, consider meeting with a professional. Online therapy can provide an easy and convenient way to speak with a mental health provider from your own home and according to your availability.

Depression is treatable, and you're not alone

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