Women, PTSD, and Obesity

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Yesterday, while looking at the relationship between children, stress, and obesity, Childhood Obesity News referenced a study that also had something to say about women and the aftermath of childhood stress. This study, financed by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, set out to pinpoint the lifelong consequences that stress often has on obesity. It was a collaboration between professors Hui Liu of Michigan State University and Debra Umberson of the University of Texas.

They worked with information gleaned from a survey called Americans’ Changing Lives, which included 2,259 female subjects and 1,358 males. One thing they learned was that women who experienced a great deal of stress as children tend to gain weight more rapidly than women whose younger years were relatively stress-free. Furthermore, the prior existence of stress in childhood is more of an obesity villain for women than whatever current, grown-up varieties of stress they might be coping with.

But the big reveal was how different the outcome is for women and men. It seems that men don’t really put on weight because of stress, either the childhood kind or the adult variety. According to at least this particular study, men do not respond to stress by compulsively overeating, an assertion that is bound to be controversial.

The PTSD Angle

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder engenders such symptoms as numbness, avoidance of social situations, the feeling of being threatened, and the re-experiencing of the event that traumatized the person. In 2013, five researchers from several institutions collaborated on what was said to be the “first study to look at the relationship between PTSD and obesity over time.”

The raw data for the study came from 50,504 women, which seems like it should be a large enough sample to produce meaningful answers. But the subjects were all between the ages of 22 and 44, and they were all nurses. This might skew the results because, as one of the study authors suggested, nurses are more health-conscious and therefore probably less prone to obesity. It was also suggested that this might make the results come in on the conservative side. The report says:

Normal-weight women who developed PTSD during the study period had 36% increased odds of becoming overweight or obese compared with women who experienced trauma but had no symptoms of PTSD. The higher risk was evident even for women with sub-threshold symptoms levels and remained after adjusting for depression, which has also been proposed as a major risk factor for obesity.

According to the study authors, women are twice as apt to experience PTSD as men, because they are “more likely to experience extreme traumatic events like rape that carry a high risk for the disorder.” Given the enormous number of male military personnel who are known to suffer from PTSD, this is hard to reconcile.

At any rate, it is said that one out of nine women experiences PTSD at some point, but in the United States, only half of those women receive treatment. The researchers found that women affected by PTSD are more likely than their non-PTSD counterparts to be obese and to gain weight rapidly. The mechanism is, at this point, not known. It is thought that over-activation of stress hormones might be the initiating stimulus. The report describes two of the guesses:

PTSD may lead to disturbances in functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, each of which are involved in regulating a broad range of body processes, including metabolism. Another is through unhealthy behavior patterns that may be used to cope with stress.

At any rate, the authors emphasize that PTSD is not just a mental health issue. Its physical consequences can include diabetes, cardiovascular disease and now, obesity. The silver lining of this cloud is that the risk of being overweight drops significantly when the PTSD symptoms go away.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood stress fuels weight gain in women,” eurekalert.org, 07/07/15
Source: “PTSD raises risk for obesity in women,” eurekalert.org, 11/20/13
Image by Eva Blue


  1. It is good to know that when the PTSD symptoms go away things get better. But what about people who continue to live in high stress situations. If someone continues to live for years in high stress how does the body respond?

  2. steveokeefe says:

    Denise, you ask a good question — and we have tried to find a good answer. There a recent scientific paper called “Stress in obesity: Cause or consequence?” published in the journal, “Medical Hypotheses” from Elsevier. The online version of the article is behind a paywall, but if you ask a librarian or medical librarian, they should be able to get it for you. Here’s a link to the abstract: http://www.medical-hypotheses.com/article/S0306-9877(11)00113-7/abstract

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