The relationship between depression & weight gain is interconnected.
Gaining weight, or struggling to lose weight, is extremely frustrating and can hugely impact mood and confidence.
Conversely, depression is a common cause of weight gain as people understandably can lose motivation, tend to become more sedentary, and crave comforting foods.
Both depression and obesity have an underlying common theme – inflammation. And it can make both conditions worse.
Inflammation is a normal part of the immune system – traditionally it would refer to the pain, swelling, redness, and heat associated with an injury, which, given the correct conditions, should ultimately resolve quickly and return to normal. However, more recently inflammation has evolved and expanded its meaning in recent years to also describe unresolved and invisible inflammation occurring in the body at a cellular level. This type of inflammation is low-grade and chronic (long-term), involving a continually activated immune system and the subsequent damage of healthy cells and tissues.
Why is weight gain associated with inflammation?
Fatty tissue used to be regarded as a somewhat inert tissue that didn’t really do much other than act as a storage site for excess calories (acting a bit like a freezer).
However, we now know that fat cells continually emit potent and inflammatory chemical messengers. This drives chronic (long-term) low-grade inflammation which circulates around the body, damaging healthy tissue at distant sites and contributing to an overactive immune system.
Why might inflammation make depression worse?
- Causes brain inflammation has now been found to play a key role in the onset of depression. Inflammation causes the communication between brain cells to become impaired, slowing brain function down, which can lead to low mood. It also impairs reception of neurotransmitters to their brain cell destination.
- Activates the immune system – microglia are brain cells which are involved in preventing infections & ensuring damaged cells are removed. When they are pre-occupied with low grade inflammation they can drive further brain inflammation, triggering depression.
- Affects serotonin production – Inflammation directly affects the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with contentment. It causes components of serotonin to be shunted down an alternative biochemical pathway, overall lowering its production and availability for mood regulation.
- Promotes hippocampus shrinkage – the hippocampus is a region of the brain responsible for memory & emotion. Persistent inflammation can promote its shrinkage, and therefore function, leading potentially to dysregulated mood.
Why might inflammation make weight gain worse?
- Inflammation affects how fuel is used and stored. It can damage insulin receptors on the surface of cells. Damaged insulin receptors can lead to the mismanagement of fuel and, rather than using the energy as fuel for cells, it promotes its storage as fat, particularly around the tummy region.
- Inflammation promotes stress. Low grade inflammation is a viewed as a stressor by the body and can cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Repeated exposure to elevated cortisol negatively impacts metabolism and increases fat accumulation, again around the tummy region.
My tips to reduce inflammation
Rather than obsessing with numbers, calorie counting, or deprivation, I much prefer to focus on nutrients to ensure the body works optimally for physical and mental wellbeing.
- Up your vegetables – eating a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables provides an excellent supply of antioxidants, which play a key role in dampening down inflammation. It is essential to eat a good supply every day – aim for 7 different portions a day (5 vegetables and max 2 fruit).
- Eat oily fish – oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines contain a rich supply of omega 3 fats. Omega 3 fats have repeatedly been shown to exert a potent anti-inflammatory action in the body – aim to eat 2-3 portions a week.
- Up your spices – ginger, turmeric and garlic have been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory actions. Adding to soups, curries and smoothies (probably not garlic, for this one though!) is a great way to increase intake.
- Reduce sugar – excess sugar consumption is a big driver of low-grade inflammation. This is because sugar sends metabolism into overdrive, creating inflammatory by-products which then enter circulation and damage healthy tissue.
- Increase fibre – eating plenty of fibre in the form of whole grains such as oats, brown rice, buckwheat, and quinoa, can help support the digestive system and promote friendly bacteria to proliferate. 70% of the immune system is in the gut and friendly bacteria play an integral role in modulating this.
- Get moving – regular daily movement has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve immune system response. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day but take care – extreme over exercising can actually have the opposite effect.
- Ensure good sleep levels – a lack of sleep has been shown to increase inflammation by promoting an increased concentration of inflammatory chemical messengers in the blood. Always aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep a night.
- Reduce stress – ensure that you prioritise and schedule daily self-care time and limit stressors where possible – this can be a huge part of reducing inflammation.
I have lots more practical suggestions & tips in my free guide 8 Powerful and Simple New Habits to Boost your Happiness.