Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a well-known but widely misunderstood behavioral health issue. It is…
PTSD Linked to Obesity in Women
As researchers are increasingly finding connections between mental and physical health, the term “mental disorder” may become a misnomer. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an example of a mental disorder that has serious physical health associations. Already tied to diabetes and heart disease in previous studies, the disorder has now been associated with another major health concern.
In a study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, researchers discovered that women with PTSD have an increased likelihood of becoming obese. The results are the product of the Nurses Health Study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
Women diagnosed with PTSD had a 36 percent increased risk of becoming overweight when compared to women that had experienced a trauma but did not have PTSD.
PTSD is the result of an experience or witnessing of a traumatic event. It can range from involvement in a car accident to witnessing a violent assault to experiencing a particularly traumatic visit to the emergency room. Symptoms of PTSD can vary widely, but sufferers often report flashbacks and insomnia, and may be diagnosed with anxiety or depression in addition to PTSD.
Senior author Karestan Koenen, Ph.D., explains that PTSD is not only related to mental health, but carries risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The researchers note that the study is the first to examine the relationship between PTSD and obesity in a longitudinal design.
The researchers used data from the Nurses Health Study II, which recruited 54,224 participants between the ages of 22 and 44. The participants were recruited in 1989 and followed until 2005, with the researchers gathering information about trauma and symptoms of PTSD.
An individual met criteria for PTSD in this study if they had four or more symptoms during a minimum one-month period. Symptoms often reported by the participants included feeling as if they were being threatened, social difficulties and flashbacks.
The researchers found that in individuals that experienced at least four of the symptoms associated with PTSD with a normal BMI measured in 1989, there was an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese. The findings remained consistent even when considering the cases of women that had sub threshold symptom levels.
Even after adjusting for depression, also a significant risk factor for obesity, the findings remained consistent in demonstrating a connection between PTSD and obesity.
The researchers said that the effects of PTSD may be even more significant if they were measured in the general population. Koenen explains that nurses are reliable sources of accurate information, such as reporting the correct BMI. However, they are likely to be more health conscious and less likely to be obese when compared with the general public. As a result, the association between PTSD and obesity may be more pronounced in the general population.
The findings could lead to more research in this area, with efforts to understand the specific mechanisms that lead to weight gain in women with PTSD. The authors of the study suggest that weight gain could occur through both biological and behavioral factors, with unhealthy behaviors combining with a dysregulated neuroendocrine function.
The findings may also result in new monitoring for women with PTSD. Screenings for poor cardio metabolic scores and talking with patients about healthy choices related to eating and exercise could help reduce the risk of developing obesity.
Some patients with PTSD may be using food to self-medicate against the difficult symptoms they experience. Therapists may be able to help patients recognize responses to symptoms and develop tools for healthy responses to experiences like insomnia or flashbacks.
The researchers note that treatment for PTSD should include diet and exercise to help patients avoid this additional complication. Currently, these types of discussions are not generally included in PTSD treatment.