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Home | Pregnancy Timeline | News Alerts |News Archive Nov 22, 2013

 

While it’s known that women with PTSD have high rates of obesity,
it has been unclear whether PTSD was actually driving the weight gain.







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PTSD raises risk for obesity in women

Women with PTSD gain weight more rapidly than women without disorder.

Women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) gain weight more rapidly and are more likely to be overweight or obese than women without the disorder, find researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Harvard School of Public Health. It is the first study to look at the relationship between PTSD and obesity over time.

Results appear online in JAMA Psychiatry.


One in nine women will have PTSD at sometime over the course of their lifetime—twice as often as men. Women are also more likely to experience extreme traumatic events like rape that carry a high risk for the disorder.


“PTSD is not just a mental health issue,” says study senior author Karestan Koenen, PhD, Mailman School associate professor of Epidemiology. “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. However, despite the growing evidence of potential far-reaching problems associated with PTSD, it’s estimated that only half of women in the United States with the disorder are ever treated.

“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,” says Dr. Kubzansky.

While it’s known that women with PTSD have high rates of obesity, it has been unclear whether PTSD was actually driving the weight gain. To explore the issue, the researchers analyzed data collected from 50,504 women, aged 22-44 years, taking part in the Nurses’ Health Study II between 1989 and 2009. Participants were asked about the worst trauma they experienced and if they had related post-traumatic stress symptoms. The threshold for PTSD was the persistence of four or more symptoms over a month or longer. Common symptoms include re-experiencing the traumatic event, feeling under threat, social avoidance, and numbness.


Normal-weight women who developed PTSD during the study period had 36% increased odds of becoming overweight or obese compared with women who experienced trauma but had no symptoms of PTSD.


The higher risk was evident even for women with sub-threshold symptoms levels and remained after adjusting for depression, which has also been proposed as a major risk factor for obesity. In women with PTSD that began prior to the study period, body mass index increased at a more rapid pace than women without PTSD.

The observed effect of PTSD on obesity is likely stronger in the general population of women than in nurses, notes Dr. Koenen. “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.”

Symptoms of PTSD rather than the trauma itself seemed to be behind 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,” says Dr. Kubzansky.


How exactly does PTSD lead to weight gain? The biological pathway is unknown, but scientists have a number of guesses.

One is through the over-activation of stress hormones. PTSD may lead to disturbances in 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 is through unhealthy behavior patterns that may be used to cope with stress. Ongoing research is looking at whether PTSD increases women’s preference for processed foods and decreases their likelihood of exercising.

Abstract
Importance Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) indicates a chronic stress reaction in response to trauma. This prevalent condition has been identified as a possible risk factor for obesity. Whether PTSD symptoms alter the trajectory of weight gain or constitute a comorbid condition has not been established.

Objective To determine whether women who develop PTSD symptoms are subsequently more likely to gain weight and become obese relative to trauma-exposed women who do not develop PTSD symptoms or women with no trauma exposure or PTSD symptoms and whether the effects are independent of depression.

Design, Setting, and Participants The Nurses’ Health Study II, a prospective observational study initiated in 1989 with follow-up to 2005, using a PTSD screener to measure PTSD symptoms and time of onset. We included the subsample of the Nurses’ Health Study II (54 224 participants; ages 24-44 years in 1989) in whom trauma and PTSD symptoms were measured.

Exposures Trauma and PTSD symptoms.
Main Outcomes and Measures Development of overweight and obesity using body mass index (BMI) (calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared) cut points 25.0 and 30.0, respectively; change in BMI during follow-up among women reporting PTSD symptom onset before 1989; and BMI trajectory before and after PTSD symptom onset among women who developed PTSD symptoms in 1989 or during follow-up.

Results Among women with at least 4 PTSD symptoms before 1989 (cohort initiation), BMI increased more steeply (b = 0.09 [SE = 0.01]; P < .001) during the follow-up. Among women who developed PTSD symptoms in 1989 or later, BMI trajectory did not differ by PTSD status before PTSD onset. After PTSD symptom onset, women with at least 4 symptoms had a faster rise in BMI (b = 0.08 [SE = 0.02]; P < .001). The onset of at least 4 PTSD symptoms in 1989 or later was also associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese (odds ratio, 1.36 [95% CI, 1.19-1.56]) among women with a normal BMI in 1989. Effects were maintained after adjusting for depression.

Conclusions and Relevance Experience of PTSD symptoms is associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, and PTSD symptom onset alters BMI trajectories over time. The presence of PTSD symptoms should raise clinician concerns about physical health problems that may develop and prompt closer attention to weight status.

Co-authors include Pula Bordelois, MPH, and Andrea Roberts, PhD, at Harvard School of Public Health; Hee Jin Jun, DrPH, at the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Noah Blustone, BA, at Harvard Medical School and Boston University; and Magdalena Cerda, DrPH, at Columbia’s Mailman School.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health to Dr. Koenen (MH078928 and MH093612). The authors declare no conflict of interest.