Diet and Mental Illness

How Does PTSD Affect Weight Gain

Max Carmody, MSc

Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, it is hypothesized that PTSD may affect weight gain through over activation of the stress hormones affecting the metabolism, PTSD medications that cause weight gain, sleep deprivation, or unhealthy habits that develop to cope with difficult feelings.

PTSD is short for post traumatic stress disorder. It is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people that have experienced a terrifying event. These events can include serious accidents, terrorist acts, sexual violence, or war/combat. Men can experience PTSD, but more women than men tend to experience PTSD.

Women with PTSD gain weight quicker and are more likely to be overweight than women without PTSD. However, when PTSD symptoms abate, the risk of becoming overweight is also reduced by a lot. 

The biological pathway for how PTSD leads to weight gain is unknown. There are some theories out there however. One theory is that the over activation of stress hormones has a role. It can lead to issues with the metabolism. Another theory is that unhealthy patterns of behavior can lead to stress. There is currently research going on as to whether PTSD increases preference for processed foods and decreases the likelihood that they will exercise. If you would like to find out about how other mental health conditions can lead to weight gain, you can find a blog here that I wrote on the topic.

Even though the research is not conclusive yet, I am almost positive that having PTSD may lead some to comfort eating and exercising less. I think that this is much the same with most mental illnesses. Basically, I think that when a lot of people are feeling bad, whatever exactly that bad feeling is, they tend to eat more foods to make themselves feel better. It is very similar with depression. 

There was one study of female nurses that began in 1989 and followed through to 2005. Average weight woman who developed PTSD during the study had a 36% chance of becoming overweight compared to women who had experience trauma but no PTSD symptoms. 

A lot of scientists believe that overproducing stress hormones is a big reason behind weight gain in PTSD. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released during periods of great stress, either physical or psychological. Cortisol can stimulate insulin resistance and maintenance of blood sugar levels. This can lead to increased appetite and increased cravings for salty, high fat, and sweet foods. If you would like to find out how you can combat stress related weight gain, you can read a blog here on the topic that I wrote.

Similar to other mental health conditions, some of the medications prescribed for PTSD may lead to weight gain. Weight changes in PTSD may also be related to sleep deprivation caused by PTSD, shorter duration of sleep has been linked to higher levels of obesity. 

In studies linking PTSD to weight gain, the women with the most symptoms of PTSD tend to gain weight the most quickly. Women with 1-3 PTSD symptoms were 15% more likely to be overweight than women who didn’t develop PTSD. Women with 4 or more PTSD symptoms were 26% more likely to be overweight. 

PTSD could cause weight loss as well. There have also been links found between PTSD and eating disorders. PTSD can lead to an intense need for control. This need for control can lead to extreme dieting and exercising to an unhealthy extent, that become an eating disorder.

Since PTSD is related to anxiety, people with PTSD could also have gastrointestinal disturbances. People with PTSD may starve themselves to avoid the side effects of eating with an upset stomach.

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