If we were to take a look inside the body of someone with metabolic syndrome, we’d see a bunch of inflammatory substances circulating around like little gremlins, disrupting cells and wreaking havoc. We’d see the same process in someone with severe depression, according to Scott Mendelson, MD, PhD, author of “Metabolic Syndrome and Psychiatric Illness.

These similar underlying situations illuminate why depression often goes along with chronic diseases of inflammation, like rheumatoid arthritis, says Thomas Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic — and also explains the link to metabolic syndrome.

Too much abdominal fat is a leading cause of metabolic syndrome, and abdominal fat releases inflammatory substances. In other words, those love handles aren’t showing you love at all; they’re dragging you down physically and emotionally.

QUIZ: What’s Your Body Type?

This Is Your Brain on Insulin
Think of your hormones as a well-seasoned orchestra, with your brain as the conductor. Ideally, both are perfectly in sync. But the insulin resistance and abdominal fat of metabolic syndrome cause the hormone symphony in your brain to play off-key — with depression as one of the results. A few of the discordant notes that get struck:

  • Try this

    The next time you’re stressed, stop what you’re doing and practice some deep belly breathing to relieve the tension. You can do it anywhere and you’ll feel immediate results.

    The hungry brain: “There are insulin receptors in your brain,” Dr. Mendelson explains. “When people are resistant to insulin, their brain doesn’t burn glucose effectively.” And when your brain cells can’t get this basic energy source, they can’t function properly.

  • Enzyme overload: Insulin acts as a control switch on an enzyme in the brain called GSK-3; when you’re insulin resistant, that enzyme can run amok. While some of it is needed for the functioning of your brain, too much GSK-3 can lead to things like depression and even bipolar disorder.
  • Continuous cortisol: Cortisol, a hormone released by the body in times of stress, is typically broken down by enzymes in the body into cortisone (an inactive byproduct of cortisol that usually just passes through urine). However, the abdominal fat that’s the hallmark of metabolic syndrome produces an enzyme that turns the cortisone back into cortisol again — so you have even more. Not only that, cortisol increases your blood glucose levels so that it makes you more insulin resistant — and the cycle spins round and round. 

Come On, Get Happy
So how do get your head in the right place? Learn to relax, experts say. They’re not talking about lounging poolside (although it’s nice if you can), but about building in time every day for stress-reducing techniques.“Meditation, listening to soothing music, laughing and enjoying friends, and communicating your thoughts and feelings are all very useful to reduce stress and cortisol levels,” Dr. Mendelson advises. Best of all, you don’t need fancy equipment or a personal guru — just a quiet space and five to 10 minutes to yourself. Try these to get started:

  • Breathe deeply. One of the easiest ways to achieve relaxation is deep “belly” breathing, according to Judi Barr, yoga therapist for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. A few times a day, lie down (or if you’re at your desk, just stay sitting), close the door, turn off the lights and get rid of any other distractions. At first, just notice where your breath is coming from: Trace it as it comes into your body and then leaves your body. Next, put your hands on your belly and inhale deeply; instead of “sucking in” with the inhale, let your belly expand with air. As you exhale, let your belly feel depleted. Just breathing like this for five minutes can help release tension.
  • Clear your head. Mindfulness meditation is another simple relaxation approach. Forget notions of chanting “om” or achieving higher planes of existence — the practice of mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment and focusing your mind on how you’re feeling in that moment, without judging yourself. Such a meditation begins with deep breathing; you then start to notice your thoughts — how they come, how they go and how your mind wanders. When a thought arises, acknowledge it, but don’t dwell on it (and like that person hovering at your office door, if you don’t pay attention to it, it will leave on its own). Keep focusing on your breathing, how you feel at that moment and what cues your body is giving you (like, I’m hungry; I’m tired; I want to be outside in the sun; a walk would feel good right now).

MORE: Alleviating Anxiety

Eat. Play. Sleep.
In addition to mind-body practices like focused breathing and mediation, there are better body habits that help your mind and mood — and reduce the risk factors of metabolic syndrome.

  • Go fishing. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in “oily” fish like salmon, tuna and sardines, as well as in fish oil supplements, help boost brain function and are recommended by the American Psychiatric Association for people suffering mood disorders like depression. Plus, they reduce inflammation and can help lower triglyceride levels.
  • Work it out. Exercise has positive physiological and psychological benefits. Not only does it provide a great endorphin release (endorphins are your body’s “happy” chemicals), it also lowers blood sugar levels and blood pressure and helps raise HDL cholesterol (the healthy kind).
  • Sleep on it. Being tired doesn’t just make you cranky; it can also increase insulin resistance. New research shows that people who slept less than six hours a night were four and a half times more likely to have abnormal fasting blood sugar levels than people who slept six to eight hours per night.

by Judi Ketteler