It is well known that stress and eating during stressful times can trigger weight loss and other health problems. However, there is increasing evidence that the body reacts strongly to stress, even if the stress is not experienced acutely.
However, recent research shows that prolonged periods of stress, or “stressed-out” status, can cause significant weight gain. Stressed people may overeat, drink more, or even get drunk. It’s possible that chronic stress might lead to obesity by changing food choices or the ability to control weight.
The new Harvard School of Public Health research team reports a critical role for leptin, a hormone involved in appetite and appetite control, and other hormones in the control of metabolic health. In contrast, obese people who feel depressed may have trouble getting enough energy and eating large meals.
“We found leptin promotes the formation of fat cells and promotes fat storage in some individuals,” said lead author Dr. Robert A. Freedman, chief of the division of endocrinology and metabolism at the Harvard Medical School and associate professor of medicine at Harvard School of Public Health.
Although leptin has long been known to be important in regulating food intake, this is the first time it has been found to be so closely linked to the weight that one is trying to lose.
The research team, led by Dr. Charles L. Fuchs, director of the Division of Endocrinology and metabolism at the National Institutes of Health, analyzed data from a survey of more than 14,000 adults with normal body weights conducted between 2005 and 2006. The team also measured the levels of hormones in the participants before and after they underwent regular, moderate exercise sessions lasting 12 weeks (with no more than 1,250 steps per week), which can promote fat loss but also have many potential side effects, including sleep disruption, increased blood pressure, and increased triglycerides and cholesterol. Both the exercise and the weight losses were controlled for by the researchers.
The exercise helped the team measure changes in body mass index (BMI) over the 12 weeks, which was used to calculate changes in fat mass and visceral fat — the skin and fat surrounding organs of the body.
The researchers found that participants who were depressed at baseline lost more weight over the study period compared with those who were not depressed. But when they underwent stress-free exercise after those sessions, the weight loss was nearly identical.
“Not only are stress and depression linked, but the reverse is as well. When the two are in balance,
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