How to Overcome the Medication Weight Gain Cycle

Medications for depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders can be lifesaving for people who need them. However, they come with potential risks and side effects-including weight gain.

Unmanaged weight gain can lead to obesity and a slew of serious health conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome, a precursor to these (and other) illnesses. Studies have shown that obesity-related diseases shorten life expectancy by an average of 25 years. People with mental health disorders are at increased risk for metabolic syndrome.

Obesity is a serious personal and public health problem. Since 1995, the rate of obesity has increased by 48 percent; it's tripled for children over the past three decades. Thirty percent of the population in nine states is now obese.

Medications probably do not directly cause obesity, but they do make it more difficult for people with mental health disorders to stick to a healthy lifestyle that helps prevent weight gain. Obesity among people taking antidepressants is 1.5 times higher than the general population; it's twice as high among those taking antipsychotic medications. In an ugly twist of irony, weight gain from antidepressants can worsen depression.

Medical experts are still trying to understand how mood medications increase appetite and contribute to weight gain. Psychotherapeutic drugs that alter serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation, influence the hypothalamus in the brain, which controls appetite. These medications stimulate your appetite and fail to let you know you're full (satiated). Children who take antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs are at particular risk for medication-related weight gain.

Not all medications cause weight gain and some are worse than others. Furthermore, the likelihood of gaining weight on any given medication varies among patients.

Managing Medication-Related Weight Gain

Exercise. When you are depressed, it can be difficult to motivate yourself to exercise. However, exercise does help prevent weight gain and it works like an antidepressant by increasing serotonin levels.

Change medications or doses. Ask your physician to try alternative medications. Sometimes, simply lowering the dose, especially in combination with other weight management strategies, is effective.

Take antidote medications. Appetite suppressants may counter the effects of antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. They can cause their own serious side effects, however, and may not be a viable solution for many.

Lifestyle modifications. Eat slowly, stay well hydrated, monitor your calorie intake, avoid processed foods, increase your fruit and vegetable consumption, and eat meals at regular times.

Psychotherapy. A therapist can help you develop emotional strategies to avoid overeating and maintain healthy habits.


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