The Other Aspect of Dieting – Removing Chronic Stressors From Your Life

Written by Professor Anna Gray, Updated on June 9th, 2024
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Just when we thought dieting was hard enough, here is another factor to consider when trying to lose weight. This other factor is chronic stress.

We all know that stress is harmful to our mental health and chronic stress is especially bad. Chronic stress is the body’s response to emotional pressure experienced over a prolonged period of time.

A recent study has shown just how harmful this can be to our mental and physical health.

Chronic Stress Increases the Hunger Hormone Ghrelin

The study was conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and was published in JAMA Network Open on August 20th, 2020.

The researchers found that chronic stress increases ghrelin for YEARS after the initial traumatic stress exposure was experienced and the subjects who had elevated levels of the hormone in their blood were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ghrelin is a blood-based hormone that is produced in the gastrointestinal tract and is typically called the “hunger hormone” due to its increased levels before meals when hungry. It’s believed that its presence triggers gastric motility of the intestines and acid secretion.

However, the Mount Sinai researchers are more apt to call it a “stress hormone” which indicates that they believe hunger is a form of stress. It’s not surprising then why we tend to want to eat a lot of food (and junk food) when we are upset or depressed.

Ghrelin Levels and PTSD

The really scary part about this study was that trauma-exposed adolescents (the test subjects) were eight times more likely to develop PTSD with just moderately elevated levels of ghrelin, compared to adolescents with low levels.

The occurrence of PTSD and ghrelin levels were found to be directly related to each other – this was especially apparent when the adolescents with the highest levels of ghrelin in the blood all developed PTSD.

The typical hormone that we think of when we think of “stress” is cortisol. The Mount Sinai researchers also took this hormone into account throughout the study but only ghrelin alone, and not even a combination of the two hormones, was directly related to the development of PTSD.

The scientists have now deduced that acyl-ghrelin (the chemical name for ghrelin) is an important biomarker for PTSD.

Elevated Levels of Ghrelin Produce Changes in Brain

Preliminary studies looking at the link between ghrelin and stress used rodents as the subjects.

For the rodents, ghrelin was elevated in the blood for months after a chronic stress exposure took place leading to actual changes in the brain: the production of excessively strong memories of fear.

This is similar to what people experience with PTSD – think of men who wake up from nightmares of wartime or adults who have memories of being abused as children – they all have strong memories of these experiences and can randomly feel intense feelings of fear that incapacitate them for a certain amount of time.

The lead author, Ki Goosens, Ph.D., stated that “The study extended these previous studies to ask whether the acyl-ghrelin levels observed years after trauma exposure in adolescent humans are related to PTSD risk and severity.” Their answer was yes.

The study was conducted on a total of 49 adolescents who had previously experienced “severe trauma” and 39 control adolescents. The trauma experienced by the adolescents was a terror attack where the subject was either injured in the attack or had lost a relative or close friend.

The control group had no terror-associated experiences. The two hormones, ghrelin, and cortisol were measured in the subject’s blood and saliva, respectively, and were analyzed using the standardized PTSD Checklist – Civilian Version.

Stress, Hunger, and Diet

The majority of Americans are not suffering from PTSD, thankfully.

But one thing we can conclude from this research is that chronic stress is even worse for our bodies and mental health than previously thought.

Unfortunately, many Americans do suffer from chronic stress, of one form or another.

Whether it be family stress, work stress, work-life balance stress, relationship, etc., none of it is healthy or good.

It may lead to elevated levels of ghrelin and changes in the brain that may result in depression or anxiety that is ongoing.

In addition, because chronic stress increases ghrelin levels, it makes us more hungry. We want to eat more when we are stressed out.

If you are looking to lose weight or start a new diet plan, keep in mind that lowering your stress levels and especially chronic stress, is an important factor to be aware of.

It will make it harder to lose weight and feel good about yourself if you are constantly stressed out about anything in life. Overeating and depression/anxiety may result instead and nobody wants that.

Keep your goal in mind but enjoy life too! Find out what is causing stress in your life and cut it out if you can. Nothing is more important than your mental health and keeping your body healthy and fit.



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