Obesity’s Link to Mental Health Disorders

We have all heard the numbers at this point: 2 out of 3 Americans are overweight and a third are obese. How this increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes is making headlines all the time. Another risk, often over looked, is the link between obesity and brain disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and panic disorder.

A recent study entitled “Association Between Obesity and Psychiatric Disorders in the US Adult Population,” is a cross-sectional study which describes a population at one moment in time. It’s not as strong as prospective data that follows people over time, but the results are still interesting to look at, even if though we’re still left with a lot of questions.

For this study, the researchers interviewed 9,125 people. Among the obese, they found that depression was 21% more likely, panic disorder 27% more likely, and bipolar disorder 47% more likely. Since medications can often cause weight gain, I wonder which comes first. For example, someone with bipolar disorder who is a normal weight will be treated with a mood stabilizer like lithium, depakote, and, more commonly these days, an atypical antipsychotic like Zyprexa, Seroquel, or Risperdal. All of these can cause significant weight gain in many patients.

I’m on the hunt for more prospective data, and welcome any suggestions you might have. I bet people who enter psychiatric treatment do show an increase in weight. Evidence is also mounting that obesity increases risk for depression, especially as a cause of depression can be chronic low grade inflammation. Obese patients often struggle with diabetes and hypertension (metabolic syndrome) and these diseases also greatly increase the risk of mental health problems.

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Drew Ramsey, MD

Drew Ramsey, M.D. is a psychiatrist, author, and farmer. He is a clear voice in the mental health conversation and one of psychiatry’s leading proponents of using nutritional interventions. He is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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