Chronic Stress increases metabolic syndrome

stress1Metabolic syndrome is defined as a combination of abnormal conditions and they include increased blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. They syndrome increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

A new study from the University of California San Francisco Department of Psychiatry has specified that highly stressed people exposed to chronic stress are more at risk of metabolic syndrome by consuming a high fat, high sugar diet compared to low stress people who eat the same unhealthy food.

“Chronic stress can play an important role in influencing biology, and it’s critical to understand the exact pathways through which it works,” said Kirstin Aschbacher, PhD, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and lead author. “Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress. There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet — for example, it could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed.”

“We can see this relationship exists by simply measuring stress and dietary intake, and looking inside at metabolic health,” said senior author Elissa Epel. “Diet appears to be a critical variable that can either amplify or protect against the metabolic effects of stress, but we still don’t know the details of how much it takes. It will be helpful to see what happens in our next study, when we have high stress people eat a high sugar diet for a couple weeks.”

The population studied included 61 healthy women, 33 chronically stressed women caring or a spouse or parents with dementia and 28 women with low stress. The women reported their consumption of high sugar and high fat food over a year and biological markers associated with metabolic risk were evaluated.

“We found that more frequent high fat, high sugar consumption significantly predicted a larger waistline, more truncal fat, higher oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance, but only among the group of women exposed to chronic stress,” said Aschbacher. “The chronically stressed women didn’t report eating more high sugar, high fat foods than the low stressed women; however, they did have higher levels of a stress-related biomarker, peripheral Neuropeptide Y (NPY).”


Kirstin Aschbacher, Sarah Kornfeld, Martin Picard, Eli Puterman, Peter Havel, Kimber Stanhope, Robert H. Lustig, Elissa Epel. Chronic Stress Increases Vulnerability to Diet-Related Abdominal Fat, Oxidative Stress, and Metabolic Risk. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.04.003

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