New Insights into Chronic Stress, Obesity, and Metabolic Syndrome: Further Support for an Ecological Model of Health and an Integrated Approach to Care

Ted Schettler MD, MPH
CHE Science Director


In laboratory animal studies a combination of chronic stress and a high-fat, high-sugar diet causes more abdominal fat to accumulate than that diet alone. This effect seems to be mediated, at least in part, by a substance called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) released from sympathetic nerves supplying adipose tissue in response to certain kinds of stress. A new study reports the same phenomenon in chronically stressed women.[1]

Scientists at UC San Francisco studied a group of 61 disease-free women, about half of whom were chronically stressed caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, while the others were relatively stress-free. They found that the stressed women who ate larger amounts of high-fat, high-sugar food were more prone to abdominal obesity and insulin resistance than the low-stress women who ate the same amount of unhealthy food. As in the animal studies, these effects were also associated with NPY levels, which were significantly higher in the group of stressed women. According to lead author Kirstin Aschbacher, “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.”

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