Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/12/2022
Health is a complicated arena for the average person, but most of us know a few things with certainty. Depression, for instance, is bad. Healthy weight loss, generally, is good. But what about depression weight loss?
Can a bad thing like depression have a hidden benefit, like when a powerful storm washes beautiful seashells ashore? Can tornadoes lead to rainbows? Can depression slim you down and give you the body you’ve always wanted? Some would argue that’s the case with stress, which can cause weight loss (and also depression).
Let’s skip the suspense — the answer is no.
Depression isn’t a weight loss technique. It’s a potentially dangerous psychiatric disorder, especially if left untreated, and should be treated and approached as such. And the weight loss you might experience as a symptom of depression isn’t the healthy kind you want.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we talk about the dangers of losing weight from depression, you’re probably wondering how depression causes unintentional weight loss.
So let’s start there.
Depression (sometimes called major depression or clinical depression) can affect your body, mind and spirit in many ways.
Your digestive system, immune system and other major body systems can be negatively affected by a depressive disorder.
Depression can affect your memory and ability to concentrate, and can even wreak havoc on your sleep cycle.
In terms of your spirit, it can rob you of hope, drive, motivation, joy and, in some cases, it can even take your will to live (if that’s something you’re struggling with, talk to someone about it now).
While a depressed mood can affect just about everything, one of the things it can affect in unpredictable ways is your weight.
Surprisingly, depression can lead to both weight gain and weight loss in individuals, and there’s not really a way to predict how you’ll be affected before you have depression.
In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, changes in appetite that lead to weight loss (or gain) is one of the key symptoms to look out for.
Perhaps the best answers lie in the biological details, and some experts believe they have just such an explanation.
One study from 2016 found that depression could increase or decrease appetite in some people, and that those changes represented a sort of rewiring in the brain’s reward circuitry — basically, that depression could rewire the brain to be more or less stimulated by the idea of food as a reward.
Much the same way depression can sap your motivation to go out and accomplish or perform, it may be able to have the same impact on your desire to eat and experience the “reward” therein.
With that sort of interplay between your mental state and your food consumption, it makes a lot more sense that the mood disorder that can prevent us from getting out of bed or make us binge our favorite show can also make us want to devour the contents of our pantries — or not bother eating at all on a given day.
If depression can influence appetite, exercise, and sleep, it can essentially influence our weight indirectly.
Alright. So, we know that depression could impact your weight. It’s so common that many resources list changes in appetite and weight fluctuation as one of the key symptoms of depressive disorders.
But what about the other way around? What impact does involuntary weight loss have on depression and depressive disorders? How do things work when you flip the script?
It depends a lot on context. We do know that adverse events can cause long-term effects.
For instance, some research suggests that patients with goals of weight loss who accomplish this goal in a healthy manner (things like a proper diet, regular exercise and rest) can actually improve their mental health — particularly if obesity is a pre-existing factor.
A 2021 review found that obese patients with depression who were put on calorie-restricted diets gained numerous benefits and a reduction in depressive symptoms (and probably reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease, too).
The study found this reduction of symptoms of depression in patients with weight loss to a potential direct link to immunoendocrine and psychosocial mechanisms.
While there are some people who can certainly reap health benefits from losing some weight, depression isn’t the latest, most reliable diet fad. And, in many cases, what someone experiences in weight loss due to depression isn’t really healthy weight loss, so much as it is malnutrition.
A 2013 study examined the nutritional levels and mental health of more than 300 rural elderly people. Research has often shown that both nutritional status and mental health deteriorate as we age, but this study found a staggering correlation between the two health conditions.
A depressed person was more than 15 times more likely to be malnourished than their peers, according to that study. They concluded that depression is a “powerful” risk factor for malnutrition.
It becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg question at this point — did those people in the studies get depressed first, or malnourished first? It’s possibly different from person to person.
However, other research shows clearly that depression and malnutrition often go hand in hand, and that, in depressed people, certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies (like B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals and amino acids) are common.
Some of these nutritional elements are crucial to the proper function of neurotransmitters. This would suggest that, yes, weight loss as a result of malnutrition can indeed increase your risk of depression, if not cause it outright.
There’s another scenario we need to address here: the people with depression who are losing weight and wondering if it’s a sign of a mental health issue.
There are countless reasons you could be losing weight, in all transparency.
Underlying health issues, eating disorders, changes in diet or eating habits, medications or recent or chronic illnesses, tapeworms, trying to weigh yourself on the moon with its lower gravity — the list is long and, since we mentioned gravity and tapeworms, pretty ridiculous.
If you’re losing weight without effort, struggling to keep weight on or are otherwise seeing the pounds fall off against your will, yes, it might be a depressive disorder. Or it might be something else entirely.
In this instance, your best bet is to contact a healthcare professional. They’ll be able to help you figure out what’s going on, and you may even head off a potentially serious issue before it gets worse. You might discover an autoimmune disease or other chronic problem that needs treatment.
Or you might simply get help with depression. Either way, you can’t lose by reaching out to a professional for support.
Depression from weight loss is a side effect of something very bad. And, as we’ve pointed out, it’s not the “healthy” weight loss we all generally think of.
Depression isn’t a weight loss technique. It’s a mood disorder. Continued weight loss associated with a diagnosis of depression is something to be taken seriously. It needs to be treated responsibly, and the sooner you get that treatment, the better your quality of life will be.
Treatment may look like therapy, antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, lifestyle changes or other ways of managing your mental health — those are decisions you should make with a professional for your individual needs.
If you’re ready to talk to a professional, we can help. Our online therapy platform is a great place to conveniently connect with therapy professionals and find the right support for your needs.
Our mental health resources are a great place to learn about depression and other mental health disorders, and even learn about depression medication (which, by the way, can also affect your weight) if that’s the best treatment option for you.
A healthcare professional is a great place to start for support in maintaining a healthy diet, and you can also begin searching for effective treatments during your conversations with them.
We know many people dream of shedding pounds, but this, as they say, isn’t it. You’re never going to feel good in your body when you can’t feel anything good at all.