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How weight loss challenges worsen when obesity encounters mental illness

Lana Bandoim's picture

If you are battling both obesity and mental illness, then there are unique obstacles you have to overcome.


Obesity and mental illness often overlap in challenging ways. Although some conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can result in a loss of appetite and therefore weight loss, some medications can cause weight gain. In these cases, patients must find a way to balance taking necessary medications for their mental health and managing their symptoms while trying to lose weight loss. How can they break through these barriers, and how can you help them?

Focus on the symptoms

One key step for managing weight in individuals with mental illnesses is identifying symptoms that are barriers to exercise and healthy eating. For example, those suffering from severe anxiety may not be able to leave the house to go running or go to the gym. In these cases, it can be helpful to work with patients on ways to be active in the home such as using small weights or resistance bands.

It is also important to look at situations where anxiety and obesity are related in the opposite direction. The fear of social judgment because of weight gain may be causing the anxiety. Although research indicates that those with anxiety are more likely to become obese or overweight, those who are already obese are also more likely to develop anxiety or another psychiatric condition in response to being overweight. In addition to anxiety, there may be a connection to depression because of low self-esteem and social isolation.

New symptoms or comorbid conditions can also influence weight in those with psychiatric conditions. For example, schizophrenia can cause paranoia according to the schizophrenia test, which makes it hard to interact with others while creating a lack of focus and a loss of pleasure in daily activities. These symptoms can make it harder to participate in weight management activities. Additionally, in patients who already have a psychiatric diagnosis, the symptoms may be dismissed as simply part of the preexisting condition.

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If you are concerned that you or someone you love is demonstrating new symptoms that may be signs of a different mental health issue, it is important to seek help immediately. You should always consult a doctor if you experience a change in symptoms.

Know the links

In many cases, mental health issues can exist with other health problems that make weight loss more difficult. For example, sleep disorders are commonly associated with obesity, but they also frequently co-occur with mental health issues. It is important not to assume that all sleep issues in those with psychiatric illnesses are just symptoms of the illness itself.

One obvious example of this link was revealed in a recent study performed by American and British scientists. The scientists surveyed individuals about their sleep history, specifically surrounding insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and sleep duration, and then mapped their genes. Through this process, they discovered a link between restless leg syndrome, obesity and schizophrenia.

Poor sleep has previously been linked to both depression and obesity because sleep issues can cause hormone problems. A higher level of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, has been linked to insufficient sleep, and insomnia can often contribute to depression. Obesity and mental health issues can become inseparable and harder to fight, so helping patients sleep better is often the first step toward both improved mental health and weight loss.

Another important physiological link between mental illness and obesity is the role of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released when an individual is feeling distressed such as during panic attacks or in those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Cortisol plays a direct role in weight gain and should not be overlooked when determining the cause of obesity in those with mental health problems.

People with mental illnesses are often criticized for their weight and told that their failure to lose weight is a sign of laziness or lack of willpower, but this only makes the situation worse. Instead, to properly address the connection between obesity and mental illness, everyone must recognize the underlying links between psychiatric conditions and weight gain that exist beyond the control of the patient.