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Women With PTSD at Greater Risk for Food Addiction

Women With PTSD at Greater Risk for Food AddictionIt is estimated that 7.7 million adults in the U.S. suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health titled “The Weight of Traumatic Stress,” has uncovered that women with the condition appear to be at greater risk for food addiction.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder resulting from exposure to a traumatic event that can lead to nervousness, sleep problems, nightmares and persistent, scary thoughts about and memories of the event in question. The condition has previously been associated with obesity, and the authors of the new study suggest that this link may be related to the use of food as a stress-reliever. There are some limitations to the finding, though, so it’s worth learning more about the research before drawing any conclusions.

Link Between PTSD and Obesity

A study from 2013 found that women who suffer from PTSD have higher rates of obesity than those who don’t, but the reasons for this are not well understood. This finding led the researchers of the new study to question whether food addiction has a role to play. This is a plausible hypothesis because, although the researchers point out that food addiction has yet to be officially established as a psychiatric diagnosis, it’s understood that one of the core causes of binge eating and food addiction is the use of food as a “comforter”—in other words, to relieve stress.

The Study—Looking at Food Addiction and PTSD Symptoms

The researchers investigated their hypothesis by conducting a cross-sectional analysis (an investigation taking place at a single point in time) of more than 49,400 women recruited from 14 states. The ongoing study asked questions about traumatic experiences and PTSD symptoms in 2008, and looked at measures of food addiction in 2009. Eighty-one percent of the women in the study had experienced at least one traumatic event, with 39 percent reporting between one and three symptoms of PTSD, 17 percent reporting four to five symptoms and 10 percent reporting six to seven symptoms out of a maximum of seven. The average age of onset of PTSD symptoms was 30.

The Results—Women With Severe PTSD Twice as Likely to Have Food Addiction

Out of the entire sample, 8 percent met the criteria for food addiction. Compared to women with no PTSD symptoms and no history of trauma, those with between six and seven symptoms had more than twice the rate of food addiction (2.68 times greater rates), and broadly, women with more PTSD symptoms had greater chances of suffering from food addiction overall. The relationship between the two was stronger when the symptoms of PTSD began at an earlier age.

The researchers state, “Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that observed links between PTSD and obesity might be partly explained by a tendency to use food to self-medicate traumatic stress symptoms.”

Limitations of the Study

The findings are encouraging, but it’s important to remember that the cross-sectional nature of the research makes it impossible to establish a definitive link between the two. Because the questions about PTSD and food addiction weren’t asked numerous times over the course of the study, the results don’t allow researchers to say that one came before the other or whether one caused the other—there is only a correlation, not a causation. However, it stands to reason that greater stress-related symptoms would correspond with an increase in a condition often caused by stress, so the authors are cautiously optimistic. It’s also worth noting that PTSD symptoms were diagnosed by questionnaire, which may have impacted the reliability of the diagnoses.

What Does It Mean for PTSD Treatment and Food Addiction Prevention?

Despite the limitations of the research, if future studies reaffirm the association and establish causality, it could lead to improved treatment for those struggling with PTSD and prevention of food addiction. By knowing that women with PTSD may come to depend on eating as a method of stress relief, psychological and behavioral support could be provided to help them cope with the condition without turning to food. If the root cause of the food addiction can be addressed, fewer women suffering from PTSD will develop obesity and the myriad health risks associated with it. The research presents some hope for the prevention of food addictions and yet again drives home the point that healthy stress management techniques are vital in overcoming food addiction. Although investigations into the PTSD and obesity link are only in the early stages, there is plenty of cause for optimism in this finding.

Posted on January 14th, 2015
Posted in PTSD & Trauma

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