Monthly Archives: June 2014

If Antidepressants Don’t Cause Weight Gain, What Does?

To Sally (not her real name), who wrote to me recently about her 100-pound weight gain after being given antidepressant medications for fibromyalgia, the recent study carried out by a group from the Massachusetts General Hospital will come as a surprise. Before starting treatment, her weight was normal, but after a year on a combination of Effexor and Celexa, she went from petite to extra large. Yet according to a study published a few days ago in the online issue of JAMA Psychiatry, this should not have happened. Using electronic medical records to gather information on weight change among more than 19,000 patients on antidepressants, Dr. Roy Perlis and colleagues of the this hospital in Boston found only minimal changes in weight. Most of the 11 antidepressants taken by the patients produced similar, small amounts of weight. Elavil and Wellbutrin were associated with the least weight gain and Celexa, the most. But even though Celexa caused significantly more weight to be gained, the actual amount was only a few pounds. Conclusion: The researchers said that patients should not be scared of taking antidepressants because they think they will gain weight. [1]

Although the electronic medical records refuted the connection between antidepressant use and substantive weight gain statistically, it left unanswered the question of how to explain more than a decade of reports of weight gain on these medications. A psychiatrist colleague told me that when he prescribes antidepressants, it is a race to get the patient feeling better before the weight gain is so great the patient decides to stop the medication. How does one reconcile the face-to-face experience of practitioners with the results of this medical record survey? What does one say to Sally and others like her? Your weight gain of 100 pounds on a combination of antidepressants is not related to your therapy? Even though your weight was normal before you started your therapy, you might have gained the weight anyway?

Maybe the explanation is to be found in the type of depression being treated. A Swiss researcher, Dr. Aurelie Lasserre, measured changes in weight over five years among more than 3,00 Swiss who live in the city of Lausanne, Switzerland. As reported in another issue of JAMA Psychiatry, about 7 percent of this population suffered from major depression. Weight was gained among those who had depression, but according to the author, only among those who had what she described as atypical depression, a depression characterized by increased appetite. [2] An example of atypical depression familiar to many of us is seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This winter-based mood disorder is associated with an increased appetite and people often gain 10 or more pounds during the weeks of limited sunlight.

Dr. Lasserre’s findings do not look at whether antidepressants are causing weight gain. However, they suggest that people who gain weight on antidepressants may be doing so not because of the medication, but because their depression has not gone away, and thus they continue to overeat.

This is a handy explanation but leaves several issues to be resolved:

1. Most people are of normal weight before starting on their medication despite weeks of the mood disorder. In my experience running a weight-management center at a psychiatric hospital, most of our patients never had trouble controlling their food intake until they started antidepressant therapy;

2. If the weight gain during antidepressant treatment is a function of an underlying tendency to gain weight while depressed, then how does one explain the tendency of a particular drug, Celexa, to cause more weight gain than other drugs? [3] Theoretically, no drug should be affecting weight;

3. If antidepressant drugs are not associated with weight gain, what is the explanation for the results of a year-long weight-loss trial with Prozac, many years ago, in which non-depressed, obese patients, gained weight? [4]

4. And what about Sally? She was being treated for fibromyalgia, not atypical depression.

Alas, statistics are not going to help Sally and the many others who have indisputably gained weight on their antidepressant treatment, regardless of why they were being treated. One hopes that patients who are gaining weight are not ignored their weight gain because a study says that they should not be doing so.

References:

1) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_146648.html

2) http://archpsyc.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1878921#Abstract

3) http://consumer.healthday.com/mental-health-information-25/psychology-and-mental-health-news-566/weight-gain-from-antidepressants-is-minimal-study-suggests-688510.html pp 13

4) Michelson D., Amsterdam J., Quitkin F. et al . Changes in Weight During l Year Trial of Fluoxetine, Am J of Psychiatry l99, 156-1170-1176

Are Australians Becoming the New Fat Americans?

On our first recent trip to Australia, I could hardly wait sighting our first kangaroo, hopefully with a joey (baby) in its pouch. They did not disappoint, nor did the adorable but totally inert Koala bears, cockatoos with designer plumage (who talked back to me), wombats which looked like horizontal furry fireplugs and the platypus, first seen in a 2nd grade book on mammals that lay eggs.

But what I did not expect to see were obese Australians. My uninformed image of the sheep rancher in the outback, the crocodile wrestler, or surfer barely escaping shark attacks made me assume that all Australians were lean, muscular, vigorous, tall and wind-burned. And in the first city we visited, Sydney, this was largely true. No sheep ranchers were in sight but the crowds of men and women going off to work in their suits, briefcases, and sleek hairdos were by and large thin or of normal weight. They walked fast and looked like they spent some of their leisure time in gyms, or running or biking.

However, in conversations with some health writers, including physicians, at meetings my husband and I attended, I quickly learned that the low BMIs (body mass indexes) of Sydney residents were atypical. “Just wait until you get into the suburbs, small towns and other cities,” they told me. “Then you will see how fat we Australians are becoming.” And indeed, not only were their observations accurate, they were also reinforced by daily newspaper accounts about the obesity race Australians were about to win. Even though we Americans still rank number one in our prevalence of obes

One of the reasons given for the rapid rise in weight gain was to enable Australians to disguise themselves as Americans when they traveled abroad, but my nutritionist /health writer acquaintances described other causes as well:

• Too large portion sizes (although not as large as ours)

• Little awareness that excessive calorie intake will caused weight gain.” People seem not to understand that eating a fast-food lunch of 2500 calories will affect their weight,” one health journalist told me. “People just think they are getting more for their money.”

• Too much sugar in their beverages, both hot and cold. Australians love their coffee, which is understandable as it is superb, and are more likely to add sugar to their drink rather than a non-calorie sweetener. And they drink many fizzy, sugar and fruit-flavored drinks along with sugar- filled sodas.

• Butter is consumed like water. “Watch how we eat our bread and rolls,” another told me. “We slather it on, carefully covering the entire surface of a piece of toast or roll and would be horrified if bread were not served with butter. “ She was right. At the various dinner-lecture evenings we attended, I noticed that everyone split opened their roll and carefully used up the two pats of butter placed next to their plate. And at the ubiquitous breakfast buffets, the toast had a thick layer of butter before being layered with several slices of fatty bacon and/or sausage.

• Snack foods are very high in fat as well as sugar. Our low or fat-free starchy snacks like pretzels, rice crackers, and popcorn are not that common and people will, for example, eat scones, pastry tarts, doughnuts, and turnovers with an afternoon cup of coffee.

• As in the U.S., too little exercise is also linked to obesity among adults and children. Long commuting times and work hours, lack of physicaleducation in schools, and disinterest in playtime for children adds up to a sedentary life style.

Advice on stopping and reverse obesity was similar to those in the States: cut out sugar, increase physical activity, and eat less meat (they are great meat consumers). Also, consume more fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products and low- fat dairy foods. But none of these recommendations addressed what I was told was the major contributing factor to obesity: alcohol intake.

Everyone I asked told me that many Australians might drink a bottle of wine every night at dinner and then really drink over weekends. A physician friend said that binge drinking was common and not just among the young.

A young female wellness advocate said that she is pressured to drink excessively when out with friends. She went on to tell me that no one talks about the calories people consume from alcohol. It is rarely mentioned as a cause of obesity. And no attempt is made to decrease alcohol intake to promote weight loss. “The reason,” she went on before I could ask, “is that drinking is a cultural thing. It is who we are, what we do, and people are not willing to change. They focus on cutting out sugar even though that has 4 calories per gram and alcohol has 7. ”

She was right. Scanning articles suggesting ways of losing weight, I found all the familiar 21st century recommendations such as eating gluten-free foods, drinking smoothies made of lemon juice, kale, and kangaroo tail (no, not really), avoiding all sugar, fasting and feasting diets, and lap banding, an increasingly popular form of bariatric surgery to shrink the stomach.

After spending only two weeks in Australia, I hardly qualify as an expert on any aspect of their obesity problems. It took me almost this long to learn how to order coffee (black, white, long, flat white). But I suspect that just as with the U.S., the medical and financial costs of obesity will bring about changes, even in the current untouchable aspects of their butter, meat and alcohol intake. If not, most of the population will end up looking like wombats.

e adults and children, the reports stated that obesity was increasing at a much higher rate in Australia than in the States. And children, according to one long weekend newspaper article, were becoming so heavy, that it was hard for some of them to walk.

Unfit & Proud of It!

There is little dispute about the health benefits of physical activity. A comprehensive review of 152 articles studying the health benefits of exercise was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2006, providing evidence that physical fitness decreases vulnerability to a variety of medical problems and improves overall quality of life.

So why isn’t everyone exercising? Why aren’t we all fit? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 20.6 percent of us meet fitness guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening physical activities. The number is rather shocking, and indeed probably would be even lower were it not for some occupations, such as construction or farm work, that involves sustained physical labor.

There are many in the 80 percent of the population who do not meet physical fitness standards, but would if they could. The reasons for this deficit include that time to exercise is incompatible with their over-loaded life; terrible weather conditions (too hot, too cold); too little money to join gyms; too much travel; too many home obligations; pain and disabilities; shift work; long commutes; caretaking for parents; and probably dozens of other reasons. Until exercise becomes compatible with the constraints of their lifestyle, they are simply unable to do it on a regular basis.

And yet, for many in the 80-percent unfit group, the response to such statistics is: So what? Who needs exercise? An older couple I recently met, let’s call them the Smiths, told me, quite proudly, that they never exercised in their lives. They obviously do walk since, unlike some ancient potentate, they are not carried from place to place on a litter. Presumably, they also climb stairs occasionally or bend down to pick up something they drop. But they valet park their car; use elevators rather than stairs; avoid recreational activities like hiking that require physical effort; and overall seek to avoid breaking into a sweat when moving. Assiduous dieting keeps them trim, for their age, and the wife said they try to eat relatively unprocessed, high-fiber foods. “We are healthy,” they said to me, “so why do we need to exercise? We have better ways of spending our leisure time.”

How does one reach out to and convince the Smiths, and others like them who have the time and economic means to exercise, to do so? Or to turn it around, how does one convince them that by not doing so, they may risk a silent deterioration of their overall health? The loss of bone and muscle, gradual worsening of memory, and the deterioration of balance are just some of the natural changes that come with aging. These changes come slowly, quietly, and often do not reveal themselves until they become symptomatic. Physical activity is known to slow down these processes and maybe even reverse them. Should it be necessary to wait until there is already evidence of bone or muscle loss, for example, or decreased balance, to convince the Smiths and people like them to start on an exercise regimen?

Clearly prevention makes more sense.

The reason the Smiths can believe their well-being is not dependent on exercise is that they have no evidence to the contrary. Changes in weight or blood pressure or blood glucose levels are routinely measured as part of a medical examination, and when the numbers veer into an abnormal range, therapeutic interventions begin. But early stages in muscle, bone and balance loss are not routinely measured. Women are not sent for bone density measurements until a certain number of years past menopause, and few physicians measure muscle strength or balance until their patients become elderly or show signs of weakness and/or dizziness. Even though exercise may improve memory and mood, how many physicians tell their patients to exercise when they complain about normal age-related memory loss, or feeling slightly depressed?

People need to be shown, not told, how their lifestyle is helping or hurting their health. Baseline measurements of physical fitness, including muscle strength and aerobic stamina, should be part of medical examinations every five or 10 years. Everyone accepts the necessity of medical testing to detect the early stages of disease. Shouldn’t the early stages of physical decline also be included so that positive interventions can be started before it becomes necessary to order the cane, walker or wheelchair?