Obesity Linked to Chronic Social Stress

Obesity and excess belly fat can be brought on by daily stresses, like pressure at work or prolonged financial struggles, experts say.

A new study out of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine claims that everyday stresses can lead to changes in metabolism that can contribute to obesity in the long run.

Researchers in the departments of psychiatry and biomedical engineering observed rats that were exposed to environmental conditions representing the equivalent of daily stresses in humans. Knowing that eating fewer, larger meals can cause excess weight gain, they sought to determine whether ongoing exposure to stress would cause the rats to change their eating habits and pack on more fat.

After initially housing the rats separately, researchers divided them into two colonies—a stressful event for the rodents. After a few days the rats formed a hierarchy in each of the colonies, which eventually stabilized. However, while rats that had taken on a dominant role resumed their normal food consumption, the subordinate rats continued to eat less by reducing the number of meals they ate.

When compared to the control group, the subordinate rats ate bigger meals less frequently, causing them to gain significant fat in the visceral region. The behavior also suggested that they experienced long term, harmful changes in their metabolism due to stress.

The study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, indicates that long-term stress could cause people to pile on the pounds as their metabolism slows. The findings underscore results of another study out of Wake Forest University School of Medicine last year, which showed that social stress causes the body to deposit more fat in the abdominal cavity and speeds the buildup of plaque in blood vessels, which increases the risk of a heart attack.

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