Research done at the Harvard School of Public Health has just been published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Led by Dr. Jason Block, the research team concluded that for people who are overweight or obese, additional levels of stress such as stress from the economic state cause additional weight gain. The effect was not observed in individuals who were at a normal weight at the start of the study.
This study included data on 1,355 men and women between 25 and 74 years old, and followed the subjects for nine years as part of another study. BMI at the beginning of the study was found to be predictive for stress-responsive weight gain.
Gender was also found to be a predictive factor in the study. Some situations, such as money issues and job-related stress, impacted both genders, but strained family relationships impacted only women. On the other hand, a lack of autonomy at work, and a lack of the opportunity to learn new things and use skills resulted in weight gain in men but not in women. Individuals who experienced generalized anxiety or depression and who were also at least overweight initially, were even more likely to gain weight across factors.
The study did not identify the exact cause of the increased weight gain for this group, but Block does suggest some explanations. For example, both stress and the social isolation (which could be caused by being overweight) increase levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. And the presence of elevated levels of cortisol has been associated with increased weight gain, particularly abdominal weight gain. Eating, on the other hand, causes the release of endogenous opiates, powerful chemicals that cause pleasure. People in distress may be more likely to engage in comfort eating, taking in more calories than they need. Each of these factors would independently cause weight gain.
How To Manage Stress And Prevent Weight Gain
The take-home lesson is that times of stress are also high-risk periods for putting on additional weight, particularly for those who are already carrying some extra pounds. Learning to cope with stress can reduce its effects. Block recommends that people take time for themselves to exercise or meditate and that people get plenty of sleep. Getting regular exercise can not only help us manage stress, it may also address the underlying problem of being overweight and play a protective role in that way. Sleep plays a critical role in the regulation of a number of body systems, including hormone production, and lack of sleep has been correlated with weight gain in numerous studies.
Block also suggests that people with generalized anxiety or depression get professional help. Talk and other therapies may be able to alleviate the symptoms of depression or anxiety and protect against weight gain. Exercise again comes into play, as regular exercise has been observed to alleviate the symptoms of depression. If it’s necessary to use medication to help control the symptoms, Block suggests that people discuss their concerns about weight with their doctor, who can prescribe a medication that is less likely to cause additional weight gain.