While depression primarily affects your mood and emotional mindset, it can cause physical symptoms, too. You might notice aches and pains, a drop in your energy levels, trouble sleeping, unusual stomach and digestive issues, or changes in your appetite.
Some people living with depression end up feeling hungrier than usual or eat emotionally. Comforting foods can feel soothing and often seem to temporarily ease sadness, emptiness, and other emotional distress, especially during the long, dark months of winter.
Depression can also cause a decrease in appetite that eventually leads to unintentional weight loss. Some people might consider this a positive side effect, but sudden or extreme weight loss can put your health at risk. It can also leave you with even less energy, potentially making it more difficult to cope with other symptoms of depression.
Why depression can cause weight loss
Changes in appetite and weight often directly relate to other depression symptoms.
Depression often involves overwhelming mood symptoms, including:
- feelings of sadness that don’t have a clear cause
- a persistent sense of numb disinterest
These changes can replace your typical range of emotions, occupying your mental energy until you have little room to focus on the typical activities of daily life, including showering and dressing, tidying your house, or preparing and eating meals.
Other common signs include a loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy, fatigue and decreased energy, and trouble making decisions.
These symptoms can also contribute to weight loss:
- You used to enjoy cooking and planning unique meals, but now you can’t find the energy to do more than peel a banana or have a handful of crackers.
- If you no longer take much pleasure in eating, you may not think much about what you eat or when. Food may no longer be a priority, so you might miss meals without noticing.
- You feel like eating, but nothing sounds good. Your partner suggests option after option, but you can’t decide. Eventually, feeling irritable, you say you aren’t hungry and go to bed instead.
Other physical symptoms
Physical signs of depression can also play a part in weight loss.
Random, unexplained stomach pains or nausea might leave you avoiding all but the blandest of meals. You might even eat less to avoid triggering unpleasant symptoms.
Fatigue and low energy can also overtake feelings of hunger. At the end of each day, you might feel so drained you only want to collapse into bed. You might eat simple things that don’t require preparation but still find it difficult to muster energy to finish even these smaller meals.
Some people with depression also experience psychomotor agitation, including fidgeting and pacing. These activities burn calories, and the combination of restless movement and decreased appetite only makes it more likely you’ll end up losing weight.
Medication side effects
Certain depression medications may cause weight loss during the first several months of use, research suggests.
The antidepressants fluoxetine (Prozac) and bupropion (Wellbutrin) might also lead to weight loss over a longer period of time.
Weight loss associated with antidepressants could also happen as a result of reduced appetite or gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea and upset stomach or diarrhea.
Changes in the brain
One 2016 study explored potential reasons behind different patterns of appetite and weight gain or loss with depression.
Researchers showed pictures of food and non-food items to three small groups of people:
- people with major depression who noticed appetite increases
- people with major depression who noticed appetite decreases
- a control group of people without depression
Here’s what they found:
- Those with increased appetite seemed to show the most activity in the regions of the brain associated with reward.
- People with appetite loss seemed to show less activity in an area of the brain associated with interoception, a sense that helps you feel and understand bodily sensations like hunger and thirst.
- The other groups didn’t show a similar inactivity.
When eating doesn’t feel pleasurable or rewarding, you might feel less inclined to eat, particularly when you don’t notice hunger like you usually would. If you’re eating less overall, it stands to reason you’ll eventually begin to lose weight.
Other potential causes
Even when you live with depression, unexplained weight loss could have other causes, including:
- gastrointestinal issues, including Crohn’s disease or celiac disease
- medication side effects
- eating disorders
- anxiety and stress
Rapid or continued weight loss, especially over a short period of time, can have health consequences. Contact a healthcare professional if you:
- lose weight without changing your diet or usual exercise routine
- notice changes in bowel movements
- notice unusual stomach pain or nausea
- notice changes in your ability to taste or smell
- feel unusually tired
- get sick more frequently
- have trouble swallowing or chewing
- lose more than 5 percent of your body weight within 6 months to a year (if you weigh 175 pounds, for example, that would be around 9 pounds of weight loss)
Depression often occurs along with other conditions, including anxiety, eating disorders, or complicated grief. These concerns generally won’t improve without support from a mental health professional.
Therapy can help if you:
- struggle to cope with relentless, heavy grief after a loss
- feel preoccupied with thoughts of food, exercise, or your body weight
- have trouble eating due to upsetting life changes or persistent worries
Some people also experience depression after losing weight
You could also notice something of an opposite effect — feelings of depression after intentional weight loss.
Perhaps you’ve lost some weight, just not as much as you hoped. If your weight loss has plateaued, you may feel frustrated, hopeless, or discouraged. These feelings can negatively affect your mood and general outlook.
Messages from the media, advertisements, and loved ones often suggest thinness leads to happiness. A smaller size, then, might seem like the key to a new, improved you, so you might feel let down, even depressed, when the life changes you envisioned fail to become reality.
The truth is, any personal difficulties, relationship problems, or workplace challenges won’t automatically disappear once you lose weight. These concerns, and anything else troubling you, will probably stick around until you address them.
Some evidence also suggests a potential link between malnutrition and depression. This link could help explain the fact that many people with eating disorders also have depression, though more research is needed.
When you skip meals or severely restrict calories — whether due to an eating disorder or another reason, like food insecurity or lack of access to nutritious food — your brain and body don’t get enough energy to function properly, prompting symptoms like energy loss, fatigue, and low mood.
Regaining lost weight can help boost your energy, which can make it easier to cope with other depression symptoms. These strategies can offer a place to start.
Prioritize nutrition and whole-body wellness
Weight loss can offer certain health benefits in some cases, but it isn’t the answer for everyone. It’s also not an automatic solution to a happier or healthier life. Some people don’t want to lose any weight at all.
In all cases, accepting your body as it is, even when you don’t exactly love it, can boost a more positive self-concept and improve your mood and outlook.
Your identity and value as a person go beyond your body size and shape. Instead of focusing on changes in your body, or the absence of desired changes, consider instead the foods and activities that help you feel good.
Practices like mindful eating and intuitive eating can also help you choose foods and eating habits that boost energy, allowing you to enjoy life more fully.
Focus on small changes
Depression can make it difficult to handle day-to-day responsibilities like cooking and food preparation, so you might struggle to adopt new eating habits after losing weight.
Instead of pushing yourself to prepare meals and snacks each day, try easier changes that help you get enough nourishment until you feel more capable of bigger steps.
Keeping your cabinets and refrigerator stocked with easy-to-grab, nutritious snacks can be a helpful first step. Support from a friend or loved one can also make grocery shopping easier, and grocery delivery is a good option, too.
Even if you’d rather avoid prepackaged or individually wrapped items that contribute to excess waste, these conveniences can make it easier to take care of yourself. Making the best choice for your health and wellness is nothing to feel guilty about.
Finally, don’t get too caught up in making sure everything is healthy and nutritious. It’s always better to eat something over nothing, and there’s nothing wrong with occasionally treating yourself to something special.
Talk to loved ones
Weight loss can lead to energy loss, which can make the task of preparing food seem even more exhausting. That’s when help from loved ones can make a big difference.
Asking for help can be tough, but keep in mind they may already want to offer support if they know you’re struggling. Asking for what you need makes it easier for them to know how to help.
Try explaining that depression affects your usual appetite and energy levels, making it difficult to think about preparing or eating meals.
Then, you might ask for whatever support seems most helpful:
- help with shopping or ordering food
- bringing a meal once or twice a week
- help with meal prep and cooking
- reminders to eat regularly
- eating together a few nights a week
Try light exercise
People often exercise with a goal of losing weight, so you might avoid exercise when you’ve already lost weight and don’t want to lose more.
But exercise doesn’t just help with weight loss. Regular physical activity can boost energy levels, strengthen muscles and bones, and improve brain health.
Even less strenuous activities like stretching, yoga, and walking can help you work up an appetite.
Spending time in nature can also help improve your mood, so if you’re feeling up for it, consider a hike or a long walk through your favorite park.
When to reach out
It may be time to consider professional support when various strategies don’t have an impact on depression symptoms or weight loss.
Getting treatment for depression can lead to improvements in all of your symptoms, including physical ones like fatigue, decreased appetite, and weight gain or loss.
Helpful treatments generally include therapy or a combination of therapy and medication, but a trained mental health professional can help you find the approach that’s right for you.
When your depression medication seems a likely culprit for changes in appetite and weight, talk to your doctor or psychiatrist about making changes. It may take some trial and error to find a treatment that improves symptoms without causing unwanted side effects, but your well-being is worth the time and effort.
A nutritionist or dietitian can also help you develop an eating plan that meets your unique needs.
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