According to a study conducted at Rush University Medical Center, belly fat - also known as visceral fat - is an important link connecting depression to heart disease and diabetes.

Researchers looked at over 400 women who participated in the Women in the South Side Health Project (WISH) in Chicago, screening them for depression while also measuring their visceral fat with a CT scan.

Visceral fat is the white fat that surrounds organs, while subcutaneous or non-visceral fat is the fat that forms on top of muscles and under skin.

To their surprise, the Rush University researchers found a strong correlation between depression and high levels of visceral fat. Women who showed signs of depression had nearly 25% more visceral fat than women with fewer depressive symptoms.

On the other hand, the Rush University researchers could find no association between depression and subcutaneous fat.

So, what does this mean - and why is depression linked to increased visceral fat, diabetes and heart disease?

Study researchers speculated that depression may actually trigger accumulation of visceral fat by causing specific chemical changes in the body, such as:

  • Influencing activity of the ‘hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal’ or HPA axis to increase circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol, or changing how it is made and released during the course of the day. Excess cortisol production and release could lead to more visceral fat being formed.
  • Increasing inflammation. For instance, various markers of inflammation have been seen to be higher in people suffering from obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Fat cells are known to trigger many inflammatory markers, leading to a greater overall state of inflammation.

Based on the results of this study, future studies are planned to find the specific stress or inflammatory mechanisms responsible for this unexpected link between depression, visceral body fat, diabetes and heart disease.

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