I’ve got nothing against being fat, or being crazy. I’ve been both, and I know that there are a million, zillion causes for packing on the pounds or losing your marbles. It’s not always due to factors under our control, but more often than not, lifestyle choices are a significant factor.
I’ve come to suspect that being fat was a major part of what made me crazy–or at least made it much worse. Well, not the ADHD – that’s been a lifelong struggle and there’s a super-obvious genetic link.
A lot of us like to blame our genes for being overweight, but I’m afraid that’s just an excuse, my friends. My dad and half-sister recently had 23andme testing, as have my husband and I. Mr. Chickadee has the highest genetic risk for obesity, but has always been underweight. He also walks about 6 miles every day. I have the second highest risk for obesity, and am clearly capable of losing weight and achieving a “normal” body mass. Technically, I’m still overweight, but within spitting distance of the guidelines for my height and build, and I’ll get there at some point this fall. We eat really healthy (lots of vegetables, very little meat, minimally processed foods) and not only does it please our palates, but our bodies also like that paradigm.
My half-sister, on the other hand, is at the lowest genetic risk for obesity but is just plain fat and has no reasonable excuse for it. As time goes on, her poor diet and lack of activity will unquestionably make her sick–it’s not just correlation, it’s causation. So while our genes do play a role, it’s a crap excuse for making lifestyle choices that we all know are suboptimal. The evidence suggests that we can overcome our genes to some extent.
As I’ve lost weight, my mental health has improved considerably–and I’m not just talking about body image, although that’s certainly improved as well. 60 pounds ago, I was a nutcase, but lately I’ve been doing substantially better. And it isn’t the first time, either – I’ve previously gained and lost a lot of weight (up to 90 lbs) on more than one occasion. Every single time, my mental health improves as the number on the scale drops back down toward the “normal” range. Nearly everything in my life gets better when I give my body the respect it deserves.
There are a couple of likely reasons for that. First, hormones: I have some screwed up endocrine stuff going on, but being fat made it a lot worse. Adipose tissues produce estrogen but not progesterone, so the more I weighed, the more imbalanced my estrogen-progesterone ratios became, and estrogen will make you flat-out crazy in the wrong proportions.
I also have polycystic ovaries – those painful oversized cysts produce a lot of extra estrogen. Under normal conditions, a cyst produces estrogen and then shifts to making progesterone as it becomes a corpus luteum; when the cyst never makes the leap to that withering-away stage, you end up with really low progesterone. When you get gobs of cysts built up, then you get way too much estrogen – but still not much progesterone. And guess what? The number one treatment for polycystic ovaries is weight management. When you lose weight, the cysts tend to go away. All of that has direct implications for fertility, too.
Second, blood sugar: when I was younger everyone thought I was hypoglycemic, and as recently as a year ago, blood tests suggested pre-diabetes. It was probably insulin resistance all along, which makes it extra-hard to lose weight and traps you in a blood sugar rollercoaster, which will also make you flip your lid. Go without eating for too long, or have too much sugar, or eat an unbalanced diet, and it’s like stabbing your brain with an ice pick. Your brain operates on sugar, only sugar, and needs a steady supply. That’s not particularly easy to accomplish in the first place, but becomes extremely hard to achieve if your body’s metabolism is completely screwed up due to obesity. Being overweight causes insulin resistance, and losing weight reverses the condition. Similarly, obese (type II) diabetics who have bariatric surgery often become un-diabetic once their body systems aren’t struggling so hard. My most recent bloodwork indicates that I now have normal glycemic control, and I can definitely feel the difference.
Third, exercise: every study everywhere ever says that exercise is beneficial for mental health. It releases endorphins and helps regulate metabolism and all kinds of good stuff. People who are overweight rarely get enough exercise, for fairly obvious reasons. When you’re carrying an extra hundred pounds around, it’s hard to be adequately physically active to maintain coronary health, much less lose weight. By which I mean, nearly impossible. I’ve lost enough weight that I can now hike further, faster, and stop much less often to catch my breath on steep uphill trails. I never have mood stability issues when I’m out backpacking – all that exercise seems to make a world of difference.
I’m not the only one who thinks that being fat may be a threat to mental health – science is on board with that hypothesis too. Even if it doesn’t directly cause mental illness, it can exacerbate an existing condition or trigger susceptibility. The good news is that it’s largely under our control (obesity-inducing antipsychotics aside) and taking care of physical health can really improve mental health. For some of us, it’s a huge struggle to lose weight and maintain a healthy body size–I definitely speak from experience on that point. But with persistence (which I think is the really hard part) the effort typically pays off, and it’s almost guaranteed to make our lives better. What’s not to love about that?
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