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The Link Between Weight and Trauma

intuitive eating metabolism obesity stress trauma weight gain weight loss Nov 27, 2021

Weight gain is not just about what you eat.

 If you have reached middle age, you can probably remember a stressful time in your life that caused you to gain weight.  For me it was my terrible and tumultuous divorce that resulted in a 25 pound weight gain despite the fact that I was counting my points on Weight Watchers.  I have seen this phenomenon many times with my clients as they go through divorces or have new babies or even retire.  Some believe that the “freshman 15” or the “COVID 19” are actually linked to life-changes as well as trauma and stress rather than overindulging.  Is there truly a link between increased weight and trauma?  Could this be contributing to our country’s expanding waistlines?  I believe so.  Just like the many “diseases of despair” that are on the rise (drug addiction, suicide, alcoholism, depression and anxiety), obesity is also a manifestation of collective trauma in our society.  Here are my thoughts on why this might be the case: 


Trauma turns on your “fat genes.”  Trauma can cause epigenetic changes in our DNA.  For example, it is becoming well known that trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next via genes that are turned on due to stressful experiences.  The descendants of people who were victims of the Holocaust are one prime example.  They have higher rates of depression and other forms of mental illness than the general population.  Some studies show that higher rates of heart disease can be seen in those that inherit these traumatic genetic blueprints.  Many other diseases have been passed on genetically as a result of extreme trauma.  Extreme stress of any kind is likely to turn on some of our “thrifty genes.”  These genes were very useful in the past because they lowered our metabolism and made our bodies more efficient so that we could deal with famines and stressful times.  It makes sense that when our ancestors were faced with dire situations, their bodies would switch on survival genes that helped them get through the tough times.  However, many of us have inherited the genes and now struggle with increased body fat when we don’t need it to survive as food is plentiful in our environment.  The other issue is that this does not only happen in one generation.  These genes can be passed down to offspring, resulting in increased weight in the children of those who have been traumatized.  However, I believe that mind-body training and other lifestyle changes can help to turn these genes back off.  


Trauma leads to binge-eating. Another issue that may contribute to increased weight in women especially is sexual assault or abuse.  Some women may subconsciously put on excess weight to make themselves less attractive as a protective mechanism if they were abused as children.  I am not saying that they mean to do this on purpose or that they want to carry around excess body weight.  Often they will diet and start to lose weight, but self-sabotage their efforts without understanding why. This leads to repeated cycles of frustration. Studies definitely show a link between any kind of adverse childhood experience and weight gain.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is also commonly associated with obesity and problems with binge-eating. ( J Behav Addict. 2016 Mar; 5(1): 11–31) Without getting to the root of the issue, it can be difficult for people suffering with these conditions to shred excess pounds. The relationship between adverse childhood events and obesity is complex and not well understood, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be helped.   Many times therapy and hypnosis can be an important part of the health plan for these individuals.  

Trauma leads to hormonal changes that cause weight gain.  In more acute episodes of trauma, such as my divorce, hormones are involved.  Cortisol is the stress hormone that is most commonly implicated.  When we experience trauma or fear, cortisol causes us to store more fat, especially around the abdomen.  This is especially problematic because this fat is metabolically active and is associated with more heart disease and diabetes.  This is terribly annoying in our society today, but it once served the purpose of keeping us alive with excess body fat when our ancestors were faced with predatory or aversive situations.   Cortisol will also increase the amount of sugar in your blood.  This used to be helpful to humans because we had instant energy available to escape from a threat.  However, this can be dangerous to diabetics and long-term can lead to insulin resistance.  Stress and trauma also cause the release of several inflammatory cytokines.  These are chemicals that wreak havoc on your entire body, but excess weight is now known to be related to inflammation.  Many integrative therapies are helpful for decreasing inflammation and assisting with these problems.  

Trauma leads to habits that contribute to weight gain.  Stress can also lead to disordered eating habits. It can cause your brain to crave foods that increase feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin.  Foods that contain simple carbohydrates like ice cream or chocolate can increase these chemicals in your brain and help you to relax.  I personally have always craved cheese, and I have come to discover that it releases an opiate-like compound in the brain.  While there is nothing wrong with these foods (because I won’t tell you that any food is good or bad), over time indulging in them without adding in other foods can lead to weight gain.   Many people also turn to substances such as alcohol or marijuana to help them with stress.  Marijuana hits the “hunger center” in your brain, resulting in insatiable hunger commonly known as the munchies.  However, it will certainly make you more relaxed.  Alcohol will disinhibit you, making you care less about the cheesecake for dessert.  Alcohol is also filled with liquid calories, and leads to weight gain in excess.  


Trauma can lower your metabolism through other means. Another way that stress and trauma cause weight gain is through affecting your sleep.  If you are anxious, you probably cannot sleep well.  Studies show that people who sleep less than 5 hours per night burn up to 400 calories less during the day!  If  you didn’t have enough to worry about while you were tossing and turning all night consider how your metabolism is changing.  


Treatments for trauma can cause weight gain. If all of this doesn’t stress you out enough, add to it that many of the most commonly prescribed medications to treat mood disorders and sleep cause weight gain.  In fact, almost ALL of the medications prescribed for these reasons can affect your weight.  Antidepressants cause weight gain.  Nearly everything that is used for sleep can cause weight gain.  Even many high blood pressure medications can lead to weight gain. This makes treating stress-related weight gain especially challenging.


Dieting makes the effects of trauma worse.  Your first inclination if you have gained weight due to a traumatic event in your life is to go on a diet to get it off.  However, that is not the best idea because that is going to cause the same chemical cascade as the initial stressor.  Dieting is incredibly stressful to your body. Some studies show that even the act of tracking your calories can lead to increased cortisol.  Your body does not know that you just lost your job, or got divorced, or had to endure a lockdown while homeschooling your children.  Your body thinks that it is dying, and by depriving it of food it will only fight you.  Your metabolism has likely been altered, and needs some tender-loving care.  You need to convince your body that it is safe, and your hormones will return to normal.  If you need some help, here is my free guide to rebooting your metabolism:


I hope you can begin to see that weight problems are not simply a lack of willpower or laziness as our culture would have us believe.  They are governed by complex pathways in the brain and hormonal alterations that are not your fault!


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