PTSD as a Cause of Obesity
June is National PTSD Awareness Month
June has been designated as National PTSD Awareness Month by the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (NCPTSD). Additionally, the United States Senate has designated June 27th as National PTSD Awareness Day. According to the NCPTSD, PTSD is an anxiety disorder resulting from exposure to a single traumatic event or multiple traumatic events, such as sexual or physical assault, natural or man-made disaster, and war-related combat stress.
Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Following the traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These are normal reactions to abnormal events. The normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when you remain in psychological shock.
Symptoms of PTSD include persistent intrusive thoughts and distressing dreams about the traumatic event, triggered emotional responses to reminders of the trauma, efforts to avoid thinking or talking about the trauma, and persistent hypervigilance for cues that indicate additional danger or trauma re-occurring.
I discussed my sexual assault by a plastic surgeon and the emotional trauma it caused me in my share post entitled: A Plastic Surgeon Sexualized My Exam.
PTSD Linked to Obesity in Women
The Nurses’ Health Study 2 from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in JAMA-Psychiatry, confirms the relationship between post-traumatic stress syndrome and excess weight gain. Among the 54,000 participants, women who presented with four or more PTSD symptoms at the time of inclusion in the study showed BMI increased more steeply during follow up than those women who did not have such symptoms. Additionally, those women who developed PTSD symptoms after inclusion in the study showed steeper BMI gain and increased risk of becoming overweight or obese (almost 40% greater risk) despite having a normal weight trajectory prior to this diagnosis.
The researchers have not concluded how PTSD leads to weight gain but scientists have put forward several theories:
- PTSD may lead to disturbances in stress hormones which regulate body processes, including metabolism.
- Women may adopt unhealthy eating patterns while experiencing PTSD in order to cope with stress.
- Ongoing research is looking at whether PTSD increases women’s preference for processed foods and decreases the likelihood that they will exercise.
Trauma, Emotional Eating, and Obesity
Many of us recognize the compulsion to overeat as an emotional response to anxiety and stress. I recently experienced a triggered emotional response to the trauma of my physician sexual assault, which then drove me to eat an entire chocolate candy bar. Long ago, I would not have been able to stop at just one candy bar.
Michael D. Myers, M.D., an obesity and eating disorder specialist, estimates that 40 percent of his significantly obese patients have experienced sexual abuse. Insights from Arya M. Sharma, M.D., chair of the Cardiovascular Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, correlate with Dr. Myers claim. Dr. Sharma states, “To anyone running a bariatric clinic, stories of sexual abuse linked to obesity should come as no surprise. Previous reports have estimated that as many as 20-40% of patients seeking weight loss, particularly bariatric surgery, may have histories of sexual abuse.”
If left untreated, PTSD can worsen over time. The following are resources where you may find information and support:
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