Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Research suggests why stress may add pounds

In Brief

Research suggests why stress may add pounds

Everyone indulges in a little "comfort food" once in a while, sometimes to deal with stress. But people under chronic stress who habitually consume junk food may find themselves packing on the pounds, especially in the abdominal region, thus increasing their risk of diabetes and heart disease.

A study has identified one possible culprit: neuropeptide Y (NPY). Scientists already knew that this body chemical increases appetite, especially for carbohydrate-rich food, and that certain types of stress increase NPY levels. In the latest research, investigators from Georgetown University showed that NPY stimulates the growth of abdominal fat cells in mice under conditions of chronic stress. When the researchers inhibited NPY and subjected the mice to two types of stress, they were able to prevent fat accumulation. The report may point to a new target for weight loss drug development.

For now, the research provides one more reason why people dealing with stress should try to find healthier ways of coping with it: Although chronic stress may increase the desire to overeat comfort foods, it may also increase the likelihood that doing so will lead to unhealthy weight gain.

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