How are fat cells related to depression?

How are Fat Cells Related to Depression?

The relationship between fat cells (adipose tissue) and depression is complex and multifaceted. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, there are several potential connections between fat cells and mental health including depression. Here we will discuss inflammatory responses, hormonal (cytokine) imbalance, insulin resistance, psychosocial factors and shared genetic factors. 

Much literature discusses chronic inflammatory diseases as the most significant cause of mortality and morbidity in the world. Obesity and depression are chronic inflammatory diseases and the so-called ‘obesity and depression epidemic’, highlights this growing disease burden. Now estimated worldwide at over 300 million people suffering from depression [1], and 650 million obese [2]. 

Obesity is measured via an established diagnostic called Body Mass Index, estimated by dividing weight in kg by height in m2 (or BMI >= 30 kg/m2) [3]. Depression is measured via various depression assessment instruments. Examples of such instruments and scales can be found in the U.S. psychiatry manual DSM-5 and the European psychiatry manual ICD-11 .

The high disease burden of chronic obesity associated with depression in patients confers high heterogeneity. This means their respective underlying aetiologies (manner of causation) are mediated by a complex interaction of genetic, neurobiological, behavioural, and social factors. 

This can include psychosocial stress-induced anxiety, isolation or even loneliness and economic hardship. The stigma and societal pressures associated with obesity can contribute to psychosocial stressors, which are known risk factors for depression. Negative body image and discrimination may also affect self-esteem and mental well-being.

The statistics obscure the suffering when considering this high heterogeneity alongside varying severity levels in obesity and depression disease, and overall reduced quality of life. Hence the importance of this discussion. 

One determinant of obesity and depression comorbidity (or simultaneous presence), is dysfunctional fat mass. BMI increasing above the normal range (18.5 – 24.9 kg/m2) for prolonged periods over months or years, has been associated with persistent immune activation and low-level systemic inflammation.

Exacerbating risk for obesity-related depression and vice versa. Also, increasing risk for secondary conditions, including heart disease, type II diabetes [4] and more recently covid, where inflammation has been shown to underlie severe covid symptomology. 

Inflammation is the body’s natural immune defence mechanism in good health, with first line defence (when pathogens attack), being the body’s own cell-mediated immune response, involving cytokines vs. antibodies. 

However, this defence can become impaired in obesity, when fat cells’ usual synthesis of anti-pro-inflammatory adipose tissue cytokines or adipocytokines (a subgroup of hormones – produced in fat cells and other cells) becomes skewed toward a pro-inflammatory state.

Elevated levels of pro-inflammatory adipocytokines Interleukin 6 (IL-6), C-reactive Protein (CRP), Tumour Necrosis Factor-alpha (TNF-α), and Leptin, also Resistin (in conjunction with higher fasting serum insulin), have been found in obese adipose (fat) tissue [6]. 

Coining a neuro-inflammation subtype where the fat cells in this subtype ‘act as if’ they are defending against pathogens when they are defending against their own inflamed state [7]. Speculating the cytokine hypothesis, whereby much empirical evidence has been gathered over the past two decades, linking obesity risk with low-grade systemic inflammation in depression. 

Patients characteristically exhibit abnormal levels of pro-inflammatory adipocytokines IL-6, CRP, and TNF-α blood biomarkers, and have impaired immune responses, in comparison with non-obese-depressed patients. Interestingly, studies administering HIV-inductive cytokines, including TNF-α and IL-6, found depressive symptomology and behaviours could be induced in some patients, such as anxiety, anhedonia, and disordered feeding behaviours [8]. 

There is a known relationship between fat cell size and volume in obesity and elevated pro-inflammatory adipocytokines, shown to aggravate the neuroinflammation subtype. Potentially leading to the deposition of fat in other organs, mainly the liver, with consequences of fatty liver disease, as well as poor gut microbe health. 

In addition, elevated levels of TNF-α and resistin have been shown to induce insulin resistance or an impaired response of the body to insulin, resulting in elevated levels of glucose in the blood, driving obesity traits. Evidence suggests your risk of developing depression is double that of someone who is not insulin-resistant, even if you have never experienced depression before. 

Insulin resistance is also associated with type 2 diabetes and an impaired stress response. People with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes [9][10]. Elevated IL-6 has been shown to play a significant role in the accumulation of fat cells in the muscular tissue of the heart, driving factors that can lead to heart disease. 

Higher levels of leptin have been shown to increase leptin resistance in the brain, which means the brain does not respond as it usually would to leptin. Leptin resistance ‘turns off’ leptin’s inter-cellular signals that would normally tell the body to stop eating, so you never feel satiated, underlying disordered eating, even if you have sufficient fat stores [11].

Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated high-BMI-related chronic inflammation and impaired immunity as strong independent risk factors for severe Covid disease, heightening the risk of the illness in patients with obesity. 

Particularly in a subgroup, comorbid with metabolic syndrome, shown to be more prone to developing ‘hyper inflammation and cytokine storm syndrome’ [12]. Emphasised in a study by Tulane University that found ‘metabolic syndrome itself substantially increased the risks of ICU admission, ventilation and mortality’ [13]. Further qualified by a recent peer-reviewed study, showing similar findings [14]. 

Alongside, an ongoing COVID-19 Social Study by University College London (UCL), found ‘levels of depression and anxiety remained highest among those with a pre-existing clinical diagnosis of depression and obesity, living with lower household income…, in urban areas’, relating environment and health inequalities as fundamental in the covid phenomena[15]. 

Other twin studies (Afari et al., 2010) also highlighted the role of the environment and related psychosocial stressors in the pathologic mix, finding that ‘only 12% of the genetic component of depression is shared by obesity’ [17]. 

Moreover, a study by Kings College London, looking at genetic predisposition in body weight regulation, showed a link between clinical eating disorders (binge eating and bulimia) and a higher genetic risk of obesity and high-BMI weight traits, which also appeared to share genetic risk with depression [18]. 

Not all obese patients with depression (and vice-versa) fit the neuroinflammation subtype. It is possible to be metabolically healthy obese, where patients do not suffer from inflammation-based metabolic complications and risk of depression. 

This was highlighted through identical twin studies carried out by Pietiläinen and colleagues in 2013[16]. And in the reciprocal risk relationship of obesity-associated depression and depression-associated obesity, representing a lesser risk than obesity, in underweight and overweight patients, implying a BMI ‘dose-response gradient’ [5]. 

Overall, the obesity and depression epidemic is not an unstoppable trend. Advances in Neuroscience, namely psychoneuroimmunology targeted research, recognise inflammation as an important mechanism in the vicious cycle between obesity and depression. 

New clinical research in this arena, discusses the ‘urgent need to reduce inflammation in overweight people with depression’, finding a 2.4 times greater likelihood of clinically elevated levels of inflammation in this subtype, along with ‘depression significantly aggravating inflammation well beyond the expected effect of excess weight gain on inflammation’ [19].  

This raises the alarm for further investment in new, neurogenetic-psycho-nutritional interventions, alongside psychoneuroimmunology targeted research, that seek to break the cycle for at risk neuroinflammation subtypes. 

An example of such investment is the PREDICT research (Personalised Responses to Dietary Composition Trial). A series of the world’s largest nutritional science studies led in part by Geneticist and Epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector. 

The PREDICT studies throw a shadow on the ‘one size fits all’ weight-centred health paradigm, by recognising individual differences in food, blood sugar and blood lipid responses to different foods. The studies ask ‘how do macronutrients behave on their own, and in combinations of foods, and dietary patterns by individual? Factoring genetic as well as endocrinal glycaemic and metabolic individual differences in the population. 

In so doing, it likely confers greater benefit for vulnerable neuroinflammation subtypes, in treating each individual as unique [20]. Furthermore, PREDICT has highlighted that the inflammatory response is also highly variable amongst the general population, prompting the need for more in-depth profiling of variables such as genetics, gender, age, lifestyle and environment. 

Applying new statistical models seems critical, courtesy of computational neuroscience involving mathematical modelling, and the latest neuroimaging technology. It raises the question, would it be possible to potentially prototype inflammation itself, and its response to dietary changes across the varied population? 

Ultimately, these and other burgeoning studies, highlight the role of inflammation in disease, and as an important mechanism in the obesity-depression reciprocal relationship. And so elucidates areas for potential future research and treatments in bridging the gap between research in the lab and real-life, in an applied understanding of fat cells’ relationship to depression. 

It is important to note that while there is evidence suggesting a link between fat cells and depression, correlation does not imply causation. Many factors, including psychosocial, genetic, and environmental influences (such as stress), can contribute to obesity and depression.

Individual responses can vary, and not everyone with obesity suffers from depression or experiences other related conditions. Nor does everyone with depression have issues with weight. The relationship between fat cells and depression is a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors that researchers are actively exploring.

If someone is experiencing symptoms of depression, they should seek professional help from their General Practitioner or Health Professional for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate support.


 Author: Treesje Verlinden


This Article aims to present a unique viewpoint on existing problems, prevalent notions and fundamental concepts, on the specific topic of fat cells’ relationship with depression. Proposing and supporting new hypotheses, and discussing the implications of newly implemented innovations in neuroscience.


  1. Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders. Global Health Estimates. World Health Organisation. WHO [cited 2017]. Available from:
  2. Obesity and Overweight. Key Facts. World Health Organisation. WHO [cited 2016]. Available from:
  3. Obesity Diagnostics [Weight Classes BMI]. NICE. [cited 2017 Dec]. Available from: Obesity | Health topics A to Z | CKS | NICE
  4. Global Burden of Disease. GBD. [cited 2019]. Available from:
  5. Luppino FS, de Wit LM, Bouvy PF, Stijnen T, Cuijpers P, Penninx BWJH, Zitman FG. Overweight, Obesity, and Depression: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Studies.  Arch Gen Psychiatry; 2010. Chapter 67(3). 220-229p. Available from:
  6. Blasco BV, García-Jiménez J, Bodoano I, Gutiérrez-Rojas L. Obesity and Depression: Its Prevalence and Influence as a Prognostic Factor: A Systematic Review. Psychiatry Investig; 2020. Chapter 17(8). 715-724p. Available from:
  7. Berk MW, Williams LJ, Jacka FN, O’Neil A, Pasco JA, Moylan S, Allen NB, Stuart AL, Hayley AC, Byrne ML, Maes M. So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?. BMC Med; 2013. Chapter 11(200). Available from:
  8. Martone G. The inflammation hypothesis and mental illness. J Clin Psychiatr Neurosci. 2019. Chapter 2(1). 1-10p. Available from: The inflammation hypothesis and mental illness (
  9. Uranga RM, Keller JN. The Complex Interactions Between Obesity, Metabolism and the Brain. Frontiers in Neuroscience; 2019. Available from:
  10. Ouakinin SRS, Barreira DP, Gois CJ. Depression and Obesity: Integrating the Role of Stress, Neuroendocrine Dysfunction and Inflammatory Pathways. Front Endocrinol (Lausanne); 2018. Chapter 9. 431p. Available from: Depression and Obesity: Integrating the Role of Stress, Neuroendocrine Dysfunction and Inflammatory Pathways (
  11. Minihane AM, Vinoy S, Russell WR, Baka A, Roche HM, Tuohy KM, Teeling JL, Blaak EE, Fenech M, Vauzour D, McArdle HJ, Kremer BH, Sterkman L, Vafeiadou K, Benedetti MM, Williams CM, Calder PC. Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation. Br J Nutr; 2015. Chapter 114(7). 999-1012p. Available from:
  12. Chiappetta S, Sharma AM, Bottino V, Stier C. COVID-19 and the role of chronic inflammation in patients with obesity. Int J Obes; 2020. Chapter 44. 1790–1792p. Available from:
  13. Popkin BM, Du S, Green WD, Beck MA, Algaith T, Herbst CH, Alsukait RF, Alluhidan M, Alazemi N, Shekar M. Individuals with obesity and COVID-19: A global perspective on the epidemiology and biological relationships. Obes Rev; 2020. Chapter 21(11). Available from:
  14. Xie J, Zu Y, Alkhatib A, Pham TT, Gill F, Jang A, Radosta S, Chaaya G, Myers L, Zifodya JS, Bojanowski CM, Marrouche NF, Mauvais-Jarvis F, Denson JL. Metabolic Syndrome and COVID-19 Mortality Among Adult Black Patients in New Orleans. Diabetes Care; 2020. Chapter 44(1). 188–93p. Available from:
  15. Fancourt D. Covid19 Social Study. Psychological and social effects of Covid-19. University College London. [cited 2020 Oct]. Available from:
  16. Pietiläinen K. Naukkarinen J. et al. Identical twins with weight differences shed light on the phenomenon of metabolically healthy obesity. Science Daily. [cited 2013 Oct]. Available from:
  17. Afari N, Noonan C, Goldberg J, Roy-Byrne P, Schur E, Golnari G, Buchwald D. Depression and obesity: do shared genes explain the relationship? Depress Anxiety; 2010. Chapter 27(9). 799-806p. Available from:
  18. Hübel C, Abdulkadir M, Herle M, Micali N. One size does not fit all. Genomics differentiates among anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge‐eating disorder. Int J Eat Disord; 2021. 1–9p. Available from:
  19. McLaughlin A, Nikkheslat N, Hastings C, Nettis M, Kose M, Worrell C, Zajkowska Z, Mariani N, Enache D, Lombardo G, Pointon L, Cowen P, Cavanagh J, Harrison N, Bullmore E, Pariante C, Mondelli V. The influence of comorbid depression and overweight status on peripheral inflammation and cortisol levels. Psychological Medicine; 2020. 1-8p. Available from: 
  20. Berry SE, Valdes AM, Drew DA, Asnicar F, Mazidi M, Wolf J, Capdevila J, Hadjigeorgiou G, Davies R, Al Khatib H, Bonnett C, Ganesh S, Bakker E, Hart D, Mangino M, Merino J, Linenberg I, Wyatt P, Ordovas JM, Gardner CD, Delahanty LM, Chan AT, Segata N, Franks PW, Spector TD. Human postprandial responses to food and potential for precision nutrition. Nat Med; 2020. Chapter 964–973p. Available from:

One Response to “How are fat cells related to depression?