(NaturalNews) Of all the potential side effects associated with antidepressant drug use, weight gain is one of the most familiar. Reports indicate that as many as 25 percent of people who take antidepressant medications like Lexapro and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) wind up gaining weight -- sometimes as much as 100 pounds over a prolonged course of therapy. (1) In fact, Lexapro weight-gain side effects are so common, most doctors who prescribe the drug and others like it warn patients about the potential for weight gain during treatment.
However, when it comes to explaining why that drug-related weight gain occurs, the answer isn't so clear. What scientists do know is that some patients who take the medications develop powerful cravings for specific foods or specific types of foods like carbohydrates, while others feel almost constant hunger that no amount of eating seems to quell.
Some clinicians feel that, while SSRIs act on brain chemistry to affect serotonin, they have additional effects on the areas of the brain responsible for appetite and hunger-suppression.
Others believe that increases in the body's levels of the stress hormone cortisol are to blame. (2) Lexapro and other antidepressants cause the brain to produce higher levels cortisol, perhaps in reaction to what the body perceives as increased levels of serotonin. Cortisol helps your body store more fat in response to what the brain perceives as stress. When more cortisol is released, more fat is stored. Increased levels of cortisol can also cause an increase in appetite, which means that people eat more and gain even more weight.
When cortisol levels remain high in response to prolonged use of antidepressant medications, people taking the drugs can develop high blood sugar, lower bone density and even memory loss and decreased cognitive functions, like creativity and concentration. (3) Some men and women may go on to develop Cushing syndrome, a hormonal imbalance that can cause significant health problems. (4)
But while scientists may disagree on the exact mechanisms underlying the weight gain associated with antidepressant drugs, what they do know for sure is that weight gain has its own set of health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and that people who gain weight while on antidepressant drugs like Lexapro may wind up putting themselves at additional risk for these serious and lifelong diseases.
In fact, because antidepressant drug use is so widespread in the U.S. -- the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and prevention reports that antidepressants are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the country -- some scientists suggest that antidepressant drug use may actually be associated with the nationwide increase in obesity. (5, 6)
Unfortunately, since clinicians really don't understand why anti-depressants cause weight gain to begin with, they can't provide guidance to help avoid that side effect - or any of the other side effects that have been associated with anti-depressant medication use.
But just because physicians can't provide the key to avoiding weight loss while still effectively managing depression and anxiety doesn't mean that there aren't ways to do it.
Avoid weight gain with holistic choices
While many doctors may turn to medicines like Lexapro and other SSRIs to manage depression and anxiety, there are plenty of holistic alternatives which can be just as effective and which don't involve the potentially deadly side effects associated with antidepressant drugs.
For instance, meditation, yoga, mindful breathing and guided imagery can all provide very effective ways of reducing stress without the need for brain-altering medication. Dietary changes can also be extremely effective in warding off both depression and anxiety. Adding specific vitamins, minerals and other nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids that are known to improve mood and release "feel good" chemicals in the brain is an ideal path toward better mental health. Likewise, a multitude of clinical studies have linked aerobic exercise with improved mood and decreased levels of both anxiety and depression, thanks to the release of mood-enhancing endorphins. Some studies show that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise -- like walking -- each day is even more effective than antidepressant medications in keeping depression, anxiety and stress at bay. (7)
And of course, there's another benefit to using a holistic approach for the treatment of depression and anxiety: Not only can changes in diet, exercise and stress management help you avoid both the weight gain and the potentially life-threatening side effects that go hand-in-hand with antidepressant medications, but they can improve your overall health too.
The bottom line
Here's the take-home message: If you want to avoid the weight gain that typically accompanies antidepressant medications, avoid the medications themselves and try holistic options first. You may uncover a whole new path to better mental and physical health that doesn't rely on harmful chemicals and unhealthy side effects, but instead taps into your own body's natural healing processes.