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How stress can cause weight gain in women

December 29, 2017
by Nicole Stempak, Senior Editor
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Women who are stressed are more likely to be obese, according to new findings.

Researchers know stress affects behavior and eating habits, both under- and overeating, and increases production of the hormone cortisol, that’s related to weight gain. But until now, they didn’t know how stressful events affected obesity in women.

They looked at two episodic kinds of stress, not the kind of stress that can keep someone up at night:

  • Traumatic events that can occur at any time in a woman’s life, such as the death of a child or victim of a serious physical attack, and
  • Negative life events that occurred in the past five years, such as job hunting for more than three months or being burglarized.

“Our findings suggest that psychological stress in the form of negative and traumatic life events might represent an important risk factor for weight changes and, therefore, we should consider including assessment and treatment of psychosocial stress in approaches to weight management,” said study senior author Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH, professor of medicine, cardiology and founding director of the Center for the Study of Adversity and Cardiovascular Disease at University of California, San Francisco.

Albert and her colleagues studied the relationship between major life events and obesity in 21,904 middle-aged and older women. They focused on women with the highest prevalence of obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 or higher.

The researchers found women who had more than one traumatic life event were 11 percent more likely to be obese than those who didn’t. Similarly, women who reported four or more negative life events were 36 percent more likely to be obese.

Although researchers still don’t understand the relationship, the implications are clear: Obesity can be a risk factor for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer. And women, who are living longer, are at higher risk for developing these and other chronic illnesses.