Anxiety Disorders and Their Effects on Your Weight

Having anxiety during a stressful situation is normal, but those with excessive amounts of fear, tension or apprehension may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Having a common mental health condition such as anxiety disorder or depression can lead to weight fluctuations–both gain and loss.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are classified by psychologists as being either generalized or due to a specific cause. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, is the most common and characterized by a chronic anxiety or worry without an obvious reason. Common symptoms include restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and sleep disturbances. Other types of anxiety disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder.

Women, Anxiety and Weight Gain

Women are generally more likely to have an anxiety disorder than men. Women may also be more susceptible to weight changes as a result of their condition. One study found that women diagnosed with anxiety disorders were more likely to have a higher body weight than females without anxiety. The study, which included 820 individuals, did not find the same association in male subjects.

Excessive Stress Leading to Weight Changes

The excessive emotional stress experienced with an anxiety disorder can cause many symptoms that can lead to weight loss. Physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and nausea often cause a decrease in caloric intake. Loss of appetite can also be due to depression that accompanies anxiety, in which a patient finds they are too tense or too distracted to eat. Over time, if the source of the anxiety is not treated, this can lead to a weight loss. 

On the other hand, chronic stress can lead to the increase in a body hormone associated with obesity called cortisol. Excessive cortisol can lead to a slowed metabolism, increased cravings, an alteration in blood sugar levels and increased fat storage. Some people cope with stress and anxiety by overeating, particularly junk foods such as high-sugar desserts or salty snack foods.

Medications for Anxiety Disorders Can Affect Weight

The most common drugs used to treat anxiety disorders are antidepressants called selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI). SSRIs include brand names such as Prozac, Zoloft or Paxil.  Over time, many SSRI-treated patients report weight gain. The reason for the association is not well known, but one theory is that the medication may cause feelings of hypoglycemia which can trigger hunger, especially for carbohydrate-rich foods. Patients may eat more calories than their bodies will metabolize, storing the excess as body fat. SNRI medications include brand names Effexor and Cymbalta. These newer drugs do not appear to have weight gain as a side effect.

Insomnia and Weight Gain

One common symptom of generalized anxiety disorder is sleep disturbance. Insomnia and poor sleep quality has been associated with weight gain and obesity in many recent studies. Researchers found that two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, are altered in people with chronic sleep loss. Ghrelin is secreted by the stomach and stimulates appetite. Leptin, secreted primarily by the fat cells, signals the hypothalamus to increase fat storage.

Chronic sleep deprivation can also trigger overeating in an effort to increase energy. Insomnia patients will often consume high-carbohydrate sources, such as sugar, in an effort to fight the fatigue after a poor night’s sleep.

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