Although antidepressants have helped many, many people manage and control their depression, this particular type of medication has often been associated with an unwelcomed side effect: weight gain.
That’s a concern not only because extra pounds can be unhealthy, but because the prospect of gaining weight might discourage a person from taking medications they need.
Let’s clear up a few misconceptions first. Not everyone gains weight when taking antidepressants, says Dr. Andrew Morson, a New Orleans-based psychiatrist.
“Based on my clinical experience, about a third of people typically gain weight when taking an antidepressant,” said Dr. Morson.
Researchers don’t understand why antidepressants may cause weight gain, Dr. Morson says. One theory suggests their effect on the neurotransmitter serotonin impacts its role in regulating appetite.
It’s also important to note that some individuals’ weight gain might not be directly attributable to the antidepressants they take. For example, there may be biological factors associated with the depression itself that causes weight gain or a person may experience improved mood and appetite while taking an antidepressant, which may also result in increased weight.
Is One Antidepressant Better than Another?
According to the Harvard Health Blog, “a study from a Harvard-based team shows that the amount gained is usually small, and that it differs little from one antidepressant to another.”
However, the Mayo Clinic suggests that some antidepressants may cause patients to gain weight more than others.
Additionally, a study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital used electronic medical records to track the 12-month weight change of more than 19,000 patients who took antidepressants for at least three months. They found some medications were associated with more long-term weight gain than others. As a result, healthcare providers may consider prescribing different medications if patients are concerned with any amount of weight gain.
Regardless, Dr. Morson cautions that different patients may experience vastly different results. “You have a lot of people who don’t gain any weight and those that gain 30 or 40 pounds,” said Dr. Morson.
Patients’ reaction to weight gain likewise varies, he says. An individual suffering from severe depression may be willing to accept weight gain if their medication alleviates their symptoms, while someone with mild depression may be unwilling to tolerate even a few extra pounds.
Managing Weight Gain
Patients who experience weight gain while taking an antidepressant may want to pay closer attention to their diet and increase their physical activity, Dr. Morson says. Studies show exercise itself releases feel-good endorphins and can help curb the symptoms of depression.
Dr. Morson cautions that patients may find losing weight to be challenging when they are taking an antidepressant.
If weight gain becomes a concern, Dr. Morson says, patients need to talk with their healthcare providers to develop a plan of action. “Stopping an antidepressant abruptly is never a good idea because you can get withdrawal symptoms that can be unpleasant and there’s a significant risk that the depression can come back.”
Finding the right antidepressant medication that doesn’t add extra pounds is a journey you and your healthcare provider can take together.