PTSD Symptoms & Food Addiction in Women

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By Andrew M. Seaman
Reuters Health

Women with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more than twice as likely as women without the disorder to be addicted to food, according to a new study.

The results don’t necessarily mean that PTSD causes food addiction or vice versa, but it may help explain a link between the mental health condition triggered by traumatic events and obesity, the researchers write in JAMA Psychiatry.

“I’d really like the message to come across that people bring a whole lot of history to their eating behaviors,” said Susan Mason, from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the study’s lead author.

Doctors, Mason added, should know that problematic eating disorders may accompany PTSD. “Clinicians may be able to look for that information to deliver better care,” she said.

Mason and her colleagues write that people with PTSD experience reliving, arousal and avoidance or numbing in response to a potentially traumatic event. About seven percent of Americans will have PTSD during their lifetimes, but it’s more common among women.

In addition to psychological problems, PTSD is also linked to obesity and obesity-related conditions, such as heart disease and metabolic syndrome. The relationship is not well understood, however.

Past studies have found that people who report childhood abuse are more likely to experience food addiction later in life. The use of food to cope with psychological stress may help explain the link between PTSD and obesity, the researchers say.

To see whether women with PTSD were more likely to be addicted to food, the study team used data on 49,408 female nurses who were asked about PTSD symptoms in 2008 and about food addiction in 2009.

Four out of five participants reported some sort of exposure to a traumatic event during their lives. About two thirds of the women reported at least one lifelong symptom of PTSD. About eight percent also met the criteria for food addiction.

The researchers found that a woman’s likelihood of having food addiction increased with the number of PTSD symptoms she reported.

For example, those with the highest number of PTSD symptoms – six to seven – had more than a two-fold increase in risk of food addiction, compared to women with no symptoms or no traumatic experiences.

The researchers also found the link between PTSD and food addiction was stronger when PTSD symptoms began at an early age. There was little difference when they looked at what type of trauma the women experienced, however.

“I just want this to add to a lot of research that people’s weight status is not just a symptom of willpower and education,” Mason said. “There may be psychological factors in play too.”

She cautioned that the researchers don’t know which occurred first in these women – PTSD or food addiction – and they can’t say if one causes the other.

“These two things appeared to happen a lot in the same women,” Mason said. “We don’t know it’s causal. It’s an interesting relationship and probably worth following up.”

For example, she said, it would be interesting to know if the relationship they found among nurses also occurred among other groups of women and among men.

SOURCE: JAMA Psychiatry, online September 17, 2014.

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