Fat and Crazy

DeeDee newI’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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10 thoughts on “Fat and Crazy

  1. Truly excellent post, jam packed with pertinent information. Our brains are part of our bodies, so why wouldn’t they be affected by what, and how much, we eat?

    • Absolutely! And that’s not even considering nutritional requirements, and the fact that some of us don’t absorb or produce some of the vital nutrients particularly well, like Vitamin D. If you have a D deficiency going, you’ll feel like garbage. If you’re deficient on calcium, hormonal symptoms get substantially worse. And on and on!

    • The challenge for me is that it is often completely unrewarding in itself. I don’t like exercise for its own sake, and the forms of exercise I prefer aren’t everyday activities – I just can’t go backpacking or hiking every day. So I take walks that get me outside and moving around, and that is often good enough. Any exercise is better than none at all!

    • Thanks – I initially hesitated on writing this because I didn’t want anyone thinking that I’m fat-hating or being judgmental about it. I’m really very sympathetic to the issues and causes, but we can’t just keep making excuses when it’s hurting us.

  2. I think it goes both ways. When I am depressed, I feel like I’m struggling to move through cold molasses. I either 1) gain weight because I can’t move, and satisfy the occasional wave of hunger with potato chips, or 2) lose weight because I can’t manage the simple act of getting out of my recliner and making my way to the potato chips. Potato chips are my comfort food, as you might have noticed, and they satisfy three of the four food groups, which are: salt, sugar, grease, and drugs. You might not think potato chips are a drug, but to me they are 😦

    When I was a young chippie I managed my bipolar completely with exercise. Well, not completely. I think I’ll write a post on my own blog on this, rather than dumping 1,000 words on yours 😉

    I’m very glad to hear that things are going so much better for you, and that you are feeling better globally, and I hope you see some amazing birds this fall. I just saw a golden eagle fishing in the North Toe River! We have a nesting pair around here, don’t know where the nest is but I have a suspicion. Last year I saw two juveniles out fishing–what a sight!

    • One of my IRL girlfriends who has bipolar initially cut out all wheat, sugar, dairy, and meat when she was diagnosed as those foods had “addictive” qualities for her and eating was a way of self-harming. Her overall health improved rapidly, and now 4 years later, she still won’t touch sugar and doesn’t eat meat or white flour, but can manage the rest in moderation. It just took some time to reset her body and gain the confidence that she could manage foods that were problematic for her before.

      I’m a poster child for atypical depression – the worse I feel, the more I eat, which always makes me feel even worse. Plus I turn into a giant slug, so Mr. Chickadee says he has to “walk his girl” as well as the dog (he’s right, of course.) When I’m doing well, I can exert more control over my eating habits and it’s much easier to get up and moving.

      I think for me the tendency to binge is also related to beta-endorphin deficiency, something that is actually fairly common among women with PMDD and/or fertility problems, but the one company that made assays for it no longer does. That would also sort of explain some “empty” feelings as endorphins are part of what permits us to feel satiation. So if the progesterone treatment doesn’t entirely address the dysphoria, I may try low-dose naltrexone. Taken in the evening, the endorphin receptor blockage prompts the body to produce more endorphins the next day – pretty clever, eh?

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