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New Study Links Depression and Weight Gain — Here Are 3 MD-Approved Ways to Restore Your Health

New research links a blue mood to excess pounds — here's how to combat both naturally

When a bout of the blues hits, everything seems harder — from getting out of bed to focusing on work or to-do’s, making decisions and even getting dinner on the table. And as if all that isn’t difficult enough, there’s more: Even a short stint of depression can trigger weight gain, say researchers from the University of Cambridge. They recently found that the more depressed you feel, the more weight you’re likely to gain in just four weeks.

“Although the weight gain [we observed] was relatively small, even small increases in weight over short periods of time can lead to larger weight gains over the long term,” says study co-author Julia Mueller, PhD, from the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. She blames a variety of factors, such as depression making it difficult to sleep, causing sugar cravings and sapping energy. 

The good news is that addressing depressive symptoms quickly can not only benefit your long-term mental and physical health, it can help prevent weight gain, says Mueller. “If you’re feeling worse than you usually do, that’s the thing to pay attention to. Think about what you can do in terms of self-care and other coping mechanisms,” she advises. Here, easy strategies to help you beat back the blues and prevent pounds from piling on so you can look and feel your best. 

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Best movement: Walk like you’re late

woman walking fast
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“Head-to-head against antidepressants, exercise has been shown to be equally effective,” says Daniel Amen, MD, founder of the Amen Clinics and author of Change Your Brain Every Day. Indeed, a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that daily exercise was 1.5 times more effective than counseling or medications at resolving symptoms of depression — and it did so in as little as eight weeks. 

Walking is the best exercise because it benefits everyone from a beginning exerciser to a highly fit body builder, Dr. Amen says. And not only will walking burn calories to help keep pounds at bay, it can also help you lose weight. One study found that women who took a brisk walk daily for six months lost an average of 17 pounds

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“If you’re depressed, start walking — but don’t stroll; walk like you’re late for something important,” Dr. Amen advises. Taking a 15-minute walk at a fast clip three times a week can be helpful, but for best results, Dr. Amen recommends walking quickly for 45 minutes at least four times a week.

Best pre-bed ritual: Bumble bee breaths

woman breathing
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Deep breathing exercises strengthen the vagus nerve — the switchboard operator that connects the brain and the gut. “The vagus nerve oversees a vast array of bodily functions, including mood,” says gastroenterologist Dr. Arun Dhir, a general surgeon who specializes in GI issues. “Research shows that low vagal tone is associated with chronic inflammation, which is the root of depression.” But stimulating and strengthening the nerve triggers the body’s “rest and digest” function, easing inflammation and depression.

And a toned vagus nerve speeds weight loss too: In one study of depression patients, researchers noticed that strengthening the vagus nerve with strategies including breath work led to weight loss. Experts believe that when the nerve is strong and toned, it clears the proverbial phone lines so the gut’s “I’m full” messages get to the brain faster, preventing excess calorie intake. 

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To experience the feel-great benefits, Dr. Dhir recommends practicing what he calls “bee breathing” twice a day. To do: Sit comfortably in a quiet space with your eyes closed. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, making a consistent whooshing sound. Then exhale for a four-count, making a long, consistent humming sound. You can change your tone, higher and lower, to see what feels best as you breathe. Repeat 12 times.

Bonus: Practicing breathing exercises before bed has been shown to help women sleep longer and more deeply, factors that combat depression and weight gain.

Best supplement for depression and weight gain: 5-HTP

woman taking supplements
A boy and the sea / Getty

A daily dose of the amino acid 5-HTP can lift depression as effectively as prescription medication, according to a study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry. “I often use 5-HTP for patients,” says functional medicine physician Susan Blum, MD, explaining, “5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin.” That means the brain uses the naturally occurring compound to create the “feel-good” neuro­transmitter. That’s great news for your mood: Another finding from the study above: 73% of people who supplemented with 5-HTP showed a significant reduction in depressive symptoms after two weeks. 

The amino acid also actively contributes to weight loss by dialing down cravings. In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 5-HTP curbed cravings so effectively that participants consumed 42% fewer calories daily and lost four times as much weight as those who took a placebo. To get the benefits, take 50 mg. of 5-HTP 30 minutes before a meal up to four times each day. One option: NOW Foods 5-HTP, 50 mg.

To learn more about mood and well-being, check out these stories:

Getting More Dietary Fiber Can Work Better For Some Women Than Antidepressants, Says MD

Adrenal Fatigue In Women: What Doctors Want You To Know

Why Menopause Causes Anxiety and Depression (And What You Can Do About It)

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