How much do you know about the connection between anxiety and weight loss? A new study challenges your beliefs about how the brain and body function, so read on to find out more.
In this article:
- Body Weight, Mental Health, and Stress
- Anxiety and Weight Loss: Is It Possible?
- What Causes Anxiety in the Brain?
- The Role of the Gut
- Stress, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders
- Anxiety and Weight Loss: Should We Induce Panic Attacks?
Anxiety and Weight Loss: The Strange Link That Connects Them
Body Weight, Mental Health, and Stress
A new study is about to link anxiety and weight loss. It could change your preconceived notions about these three things:
- Mental health issues
These three relate to one another in the following ways:
1. Stress Can Lead to Weight Gain and Anxiety
A 2009 study showed an association between increased weight and worse psychological stress. One of the reasons is the physiological changes in relation to a stress response.
When a person is under stress, it releases different stress hormones. One of these is cortisol produced by the adrenal glands.
The body has many cortisol receptors. These allow the hormone to alter certain body functions to promote focus.
- Regulate your blood pressure
- Bring inflammation down
- Regulate hormones
- Alter the functions of the immune and digestive systems
- Increase your heart rate
Stress can be good to help you remain vigilant and act on danger. Sometimes, though, you develop chronic stress.
The amygdala is a cluster of neurons that play a pivotal role not only in memory but also in emotion. High stress levels may then introduce or worsen your symptoms of anxiety and depression.
2. People with Anxiety and Depression May Have Changing Eating Habits
Stress and anxiety can go together, based on 2017 data. An overwhelming 75% of Americans reported feeling at least one symptom of stress, 36% of which said they’re anxious.
One of the reasons is cortisol. Prolonged high cortisol levels can change the balance of hormones:
- It can increase the risk of metabolic syndrome due to possibly high levels of blood sugar or glucose. The body usually stores this excess as fat, which can make you gain weight.
- It can also result in insulin resistance. The cells become less sensitive to the insulin that delivers glucose.
- This imbalance may alter the way thyroids produce hormones. One of the hallmark symptoms of hypothyroidism, for example, is weight gain.
- Changes in sex hormones could worsen anxiety symptoms.
- Increased cortisol levels could whet your appetite and even boost your motivation to eat.
Anxiety and Weight Loss: Is It Possible?
Based on the points above, it seems there’s a disconnect between anxiety and weight loss. One study begs to disagree.
A Scripps research published in 2019 in Cell Metabolism strongly suggests an association between the two through one type of molecule. It’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
These are factors necessary to:
- Encourage the growth of new brain cells
- Sustain the survival of the existing brain cells
- Promote differentiation or specialization of these cells
In the study, the researchers learned that mice with symptoms of anxiety disorder are also lean even if they consumed a high-fat diet. They also figured out they’re lacking BDNF.
They then developed a hypothesis: can anxiety cause weight loss in humans as well?
To know the supposed relationship between anxiety and weight loss, they developed mice with the missing anxiety molecule in certain regions of the brain. These are the parts that have a huge role in symptoms of anxiety, especially the amygdala.
The mice model showed that those missing BDNF in the amygdala can no longer control the excited state of the brain’s signaling.
It prevented them from maximizing a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), slowing down the signaling and inducing relaxation.
They further found out that mice with high levels of anxiety remained lean as this stress response increased their basal metabolic rate. In other words, they burned more calories even while at rest.
It also revealed that the mice created more brown fat. This type of fat uses more energy.
What Causes Anxiety in the Brain?
To further understand the relationship between anxiety and weight loss, you need to know the stress response system in the body.
The following plays major parts:
- HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis
- Prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex of the brain regulates many processes. These include your emotional response.
It connects to the amygdala, a kidney-bean-sized organ that handles survival instincts, emotions, and memory.
This small organ helps your brain detect and label a threat in case you encounter the same thing in the future. The amygdala then regulates HPA.
The HPA axis works in a negative feedback loop. It means depending on the stimulus, the axis produces less of a hormone or reduces its function to achieve stability or balance:
- When the brain senses a threat, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). It then binds to the receptors found in the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland then produces hormones that instruct the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
- The adrenal glands produce cortisol. This hormone then regulates different functions of the body in response to stress.
- When the body reaches the ideal cortisol levels, it informs the hypothalamus to decrease or stop producing CRH.
The Role of the Gut
Meanwhile, the gut may also play a part in anxiety. The digestive system connects to the brain through the vagus nerve.
The gut produces about 90% of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that boosts positive feelings of well-being and helps control the function of the amygdala.
Some medical conditions can lead to problems in the gut. These include:
- Crohn’s disease, the inflammation of the gut
- Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease caused by the consumption of gluten
These can prevent the brain from getting the essential nutrients to function properly. It also inhibits the gut from producing enough serotonin.
Trigger Warning: If you are triggered by anything related to eating disorders, it’s best to proceed with caution or skip to the next part.
Stress, Anxiety, and Eating Disorders
Other studies already showed the connection between anxiety and weight loss. For example, a 2017 research revealed that stressed-out and anxious people could be prone to eating disorders:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
People with anorexia develop a severe fear or anxiety about gaining weight. It can lead to the inability to eat or loss of appetite.
Bulimia, meanwhile, is an eating disorder characterized by periods of binging and purging through forced vomiting.
Binge eating disorder involves the consumption of large amounts of food as a way of minimizing the feelings of stress and anxiety. Many people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to binge eat.
A 2013 research in Eating Behaviors revealed that those with eating disorders may also experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a kind of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety and Weight Loss: Should We Induce Panic Attacks?
Based on the study above, does this mean it’s okay to have anxiety as it may help fight obesity or at least weight gain? The answer is no, and the research doesn’t advocate stimulating weight loss due to anxiety.
What the team wants to explain is that losing weight is a complex process. There are multiple pathways to achieve it besides conventional weight loss programs and bariatric surgery.
What is bariatric surgery? It is a weight loss surgery involving changing the digestive system.
One of these options may be in the brain. By learning more about how the brain works, scientists can find therapies that target areas that increase energy metabolism.
Most of all, the negative effects of high levels of anxiety far outweigh the supposed benefits of weight loss:
- Unexplained weight loss or unintended weight loss could mean underlying health issues such as hormone imbalance or Crohn’s disease.
- Rapid weight loss may result in malnutrition or loss of muscle instead of fat.
- Sudden weight loss may even trigger starvation mode in the long-term. The body ends up holding on to fat instead of burning it.
The relationship between anxiety and weight loss may be unconventional to many, but it’s real. Some level of anxiety is also not bad as it helps you become aware of and avoid threats.
The problem comes in when you have high levels of stress and anxiety, stimulating dangerous weight loss issues.
LIV Health can connect you with specialists who can teach you how to curb severe anxiety and show you tips on how to promote long-term weight loss without panic attacks. You can go beyond diet and involve the mind in the process.
Can stress make you lose weight? Share your thoughts about it in the comments section below!
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