Chronic Stress Causes Weight Gain, Study Shows

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Apr 29, 2017 12:45 AM EDT

People who are chronically stressed are more likely to gain weight, study shows. (Photo : Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

People who are chronically stressed are more likely to pack on pounds and have difficulty in losing weight, a study conducted by UK researchers revealed.

The researchers used hair to measure long term levels of the stress hormone called cortisol and found that there is a chain reaction from that to gaining weight and having greater difficulty in losing them, the study, which was published in the journal Obesity, showed.

Sarah Jackson, lead study author of the University College London, told Reuters that when people face a stressful situation, a chain reaction is set off in the body that would result in the release of cortisol, which would lead to higher levels of this hormone in the body.

Jackson said cortisol is involved in a wide range of biological processes which include metabolism, body composition and the accumulation of body fat.

"When we're stressed, we may also find it more difficult to find the motivation to go for a run or resist unhealthy foods," she said.

The study indicates that alarms in the brain could be triggered by stress that would allow the nervous system to release hormones to sharpen the senses, tense the muscles, speed up the pulse and deepen one's breathing. This biological reaction is mostly called a flight or flight response that would help us defend ourselves in threatening situations.

The study further revealed that isolated or temporary stressful situations may not be harmful, but routine exposure to stress could lead to problems in the immune system, heart disease, complications in the nervous system and mental health disorders in addition to obesity.

The researchers examined data for the study gathered from 54-year-old men and women and older who were taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging where they underwent tests every couple of years starting in 2002. During the sixth wave of the study, the participants provided hair clipping.

The researchers were able to measure cortisol levels in the two centimeters of hair that are closest to the scalp and measured the weight, body mass index and waist circumference, Reuters reported. The study showed that participants with more cortisol in their hair were more likely to be obese or have more fat around their midsection.

The report indicated, however, that it wasn't a controlled experiment to determine how stress can impact directly the cortisol levels to weight gain. It also had other limitations based on patient population.

Dr. Susan Fried, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, who was not involved in the study, had told Reuters that the researchers' findings add to growing evidence that link stress to obesity.

Fried had said cortisol is released in response to many stresses and chronically high cortisol could promote fat accumulation around the waist.

She added, however, that it isn't clear from the results of the study how stressed out people could shed weight.

"I don't think there is strong evidence or consistent studies showing stress reduction itself causes weight loss," Fried told Reuters. She added that there is accumulating evidence, however, that shows sleep is very important. She said people overeat when they lack rest.

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