Too much stress can be just as bad for you as junk food: Study

We’ve known for a very long time that a diet high in processed, unnatural, non-nutritious foods like the kind you get from any fast-food restaurant is extremely unhealthy and can lead to a number of conditions, especially obesity.

But a new study has found that too much stress in your life can mimic a poor diet, producing nearly identical poor health outcomes.

Researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU), in a study published in Nature Scientific Reports, found that when female mice were exposed to high amounts of stress, their gut microbiota, which are microorganisms that are essential for good digestive and metabolic health, transformed to make it appear as though they had diets high in fat.

“Stress can be harmful in a lot of ways, but this research is novel in that it ties stress to female-specific changes in the gut microbiota,” said BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology Laura Bridgewater. “We sometimes think of stress as a purely psychological phenomenon, but it causes distinct physical changes.”

Bridgewater, along with collaborating researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, exposed half of the males and females in a large group of mice to a high-fat diet. After sixteen weeks, the entire group of mice was then exposed to mild amounts of stress over 18 days.

Then, researchers extracted microbial DNA from mouse droppings before and after the stress exposure to measure how gut microbiota was affected, if at all. In addition, the scientists also measured mice anxiety levels based on where and how much the mice traveled in an arena depicting an open field.

What they discovered were eye-opening differences between male and female mice: Males on a high-fat diet were much more anxious than females on the same diet, while high-fat males also exhibited less activity as a response to their stressors. But only female mice were affected by the stress in that their gut microbiota composition shifted as though they, too, were on high-fat diets.

While the study was only conducted on lab animals, the researchers think the results could have real-world implications for humans. (Related: Work stress, television viewing, and caffeine promote obesity.)

“In society, women tend to have higher rates of depression and anxiety, which are linked to stress,” said Bridgewater, who is also the Associate Dean of the BYU College of Life Sciences. “This study suggests that a possible source of the gender discrepancy may be the different ways gut microbiota responds to stress in males vs. females.”

The findings do, however, add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that stress is a major contributing factor to obesity. As far back as 2007, Natural News reported that workplace stress significantly increased the risk of obesity:

According to lead researcher Dr. Eric J. Brunner of the Royal Free and University College London Medical School, the study provides “firm evidence that high psychological workload, together with lack of social support at work, acts as a causal factor for obesity.”

In reaching that conclusion, researchers followed 3,413 women and 6,895 men for 19 years, questioning them often about their levels of stress on the job. All participants were between the ages of 35 and 55 when the study began.

Fast forward to 2015. We reported again that levels of stress were directly related to weight gain and obesity in particular.

“The biochemical relationship between high stress and obesity is not a myth. Stress makes it so much harder to lose weight due to the tidal wave of hormonal changes that comes with it,” we noted.

Researchers note that high stress makes it nearly impossible for your body to break down fat, causing you to store excess amounts. Also, it causes hormonal changes that make you perpetually hungry. Stress also leads to unhappiness, which itself can trigger ‘comfort’ eating. Also, higher levels of stress cause sleeplessness, which has been linked to weight gain.

J.D. Heyes is also editor-in-chief of The National Sentinel.

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