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PTSD May Raise Women's Obesity Risk

Update Date: Nov 21, 2013 07:58 AM EST
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Posttraumatic stress disorder may make women more prone to obesity, a new study suggests.

New research reveals that women with PTSD are more likely to be overweight of obese compared to women without the psychological disorder.

Researchers at Columbia University said that this is the first study to look at the relationship between PTSD and obesity over time.

The latest findings are important because one in nine women will have PTSD at sometime over the course of their lifetime. Researchers said means that women are twice as likely than men to get PTSD.

"PTSD is not just a mental health issue," senior author Karestan Koenen, PhD, Mailman School associate professor of Epidemiology, said in a news release. "Along with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, we can now add obesity to the list of known health risks of PTSD."

"The good news from the study is that it appears that when PTSD symptoms abate, risk of becoming overweight or obese is also significantly reduced," says first author Laura D. Kubzansky, PhD, Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard School of Public Health.

"Hopefully, wider recognition that PTSD can also influence physical health will improve this statistic, leading to better screening and treatments, including those to prevent obesity," Kubzansky added.

Statistics show that only half of women in the United States with PTSD are ever treated.

Previous research has shown that women with PTSD have high rates of obesity. However, it was unclear if PTSD was actually driving the weight gain. To understand the link, researchers analyzed data collected from 50,504 women between the ages of 22 and 44 who participated in the Nurses' Health Study II between 1989 and 2009.

The study revealed that normal-weight women who developed PTSD during the study period were 36 percent more likely to become overweight or obese compared with women who experienced trauma but had no symptoms of PTSD.  The findings held true even after adjusting for symptoms levels and depression, which has also been suggested as a major risk factor for obesity.

Researchers found that body index increased at a more rapid pace for women who had PTSD before the study.

Researchers believe that the observed effect of PTSD on obesity is likely stronger in the general population of women than in nurses.

"Nurses are great for studies because they report health measures like BMI with a high degree of accuracy. But they are also more health conscious and probably less likely to become obese than most of us, which makes these results more conservative than they would otherwise be," Kubzansky said.

Researchers believe that symptoms of PTSD rather than the trauma itself trigger the weight gain.

"We looked at the women who developed PTSD and compared them to women who experienced trauma but did not develop PTSD. On the whole, before their symptoms emerged, the rate of change in BMI was the same as the women who never experienced trauma or did experience trauma but never developed symptoms," Kubzansky said.

Researchers believe that the over-activation of stress hormones caused by PTSD may lead to abnormalities in the 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 reason may be that stress from PTSD may trigger unhealthy behavior patterns that may be used to cope with stress.

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

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