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Mental Health and Weight Loss: The Connection

There is a direct correlation between obesity and mental health. According to the latest research, more than 40% of people who struggle with obesity experience depression. This number skyrockets over 60% when you take into account those who are overweight, but not obese. As for anxiety, the data shows the same trend. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues across the United States, and while only approximately 4% of the total US population is diagnosed as having a generalized anxiety disorder, between 30% and 40% of people who are obese are likely to experience clinically significant levels of anxiety. This is why one very effective way of treating anxiety and depression is by treating obesity through bariatric surgery.

This strong correlation between obesity and mental health concerns raises several questions.: Most importantly how are they connected and what is the cause. One way to describe this connection is a mix of nature and nurture.

The Nature Connection: Obesity & Mental Health

People who experience obesity are likely to have underlying conditions that make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight. This includes conditions like metabolic disorders or PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), which dysregulate hormones and cause people to feel hungry more often. There are a number of genetic disorders that can also impact the way our body physically metabolizes foods, making it more likely that we’ll gain more weight from a simple snack than would another individual.

It is also a well-established fact that the body can be seen as a supporting structure for your most important organ- the brain. The brain is the seat of your emotions. Factors that harm the body such as progressive obesity also harm the brain which results in emotional disorders. This phenomena is well described in Dr. Nedley’s multi-hit hypothesis for the development of depression and anxiety. This model has changed the way many healthcare professionals conceive of and treat mental health concerns.

In recent years we have also learned that there is a direct brain-intestinal connection. Disorders of the digestive tract such as changes in the microbiome (closely linked to obesity) have a direct effect on the brain often resulting in depression and anxiety. Reciprocally, disorders of the brain and emotions also have a direct physiological effect on the digestive tract often causing weight gain.

Dealing with this constant pull towards weight gain can heavily burden the mental health of those experiencing it, especially when it happens at a young age. This can cause a proclivity towards increased mental health issues that stem from isolation from peers, as well as mood fluctuation and depression. One study found that people who are obese experience anxiety-related symptoms like dread or unease at almost twice the rate of those who aren’t overweight.

The Nurture Connection: Mental Health and Weight

Just as there are genetic underlying factors that could be increasing your chance to gain weight and have to live with obesity, there is also a rising need to acknowledge the impact that mental health issues and specifically mental abuse at a young age can impact a person’s chances to become overweight.

Individuals who experience trauma early in life, who live in a home that is prone to emotional abuse, or who otherwise experience anxiety and depression starting at a young age are more likely to deal with weight issues later on in life. Some of these issues stem from the common practice of turning to food as a tool to comfort your feelings during times of duress.

Another factor that needs to be considered in this equation is the impact that growing up in a family that struggles with excess weight can have on children. Children who are born to obese parents are more likely to become obese themselves. This is partially due to genetic markers as well as in utero epigenetic imprinting, but more often is a result of acquired poor eating habits and poor coping mechanisms that are learned from a very young age.

Breaking the Cycle: Undoing Damage with Weight Loss Surgery

Addressing any underlying mental health conditions is an essential component of successful medical and surgical weight loss programs. Overcoming obesity is an enormous accomplishment that requires a full mind and body commitment, and that means taking the time to think about mental health and weight loss, and how changing some of your thinking habits and coping mechanisms might help you to reach your weight loss goals.

Achieving a healthier weight can be an important component in overcoming mental health struggles like depression and anxiety. One of the most effective ways to do this is to consider bariatric surgery, which has been clinically proven to offer the potential of lifelong obesity treatment. Following bariatric surgery, many patients will achieve a much healthier weight. With time, this significant weight loss ends up improving and, in some cases, resolving many mental health conditions.

If you have been struggling with anxiety or depression and you also suffer from obesity, contact our office to see how you can lose weight, which will improve your mental health and your quality of life.

At The Bariatric & Metabolic Center of Colorado, we have designed our program with your comprehensive needs in mind. We can’t wait to meet you to help you start your journey to a healthier physical and mental life.

Dr. Joshua Long headshot

This page was medically reviewed by Dr. Joshua Long, MD, MBA, FACS, FASMBS. Dr. Long is a double-board-certified bariatric surgeon and bariatric medical director for Parker Adventist Hospital.
Full Bio: Dr. Joshua Long, MD, MBA, FACS, FASMBS
Page Updated: January 4th, 2023

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