Published in JAMA Psychiatry, reports from a new study show a direct link between women with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and heightened food addiction. To some experts, this explains why research done in the past has associated PTSD with increased risk of developing obesity.
Approximately 7.7 million adults in the United States alone are diagnosed with PTSD, an anxiety disorder that occurs after someone has experienced a stressful or frightening event. Common symptoms of the disorder include non-stop memories or thoughts of the event, disrupted sleep, nervousness, and detachment from other people.
Dr. Susan Mason with the University of Minnesota along with her research team, states that more and more, studies are finding a connection between PTSD and a greater risk of obesity, as well as related illnesses. In 2013, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston conducted a study pertaining to associated symptoms of PTSD and obesity in women.
Although the exact reasons this connection exists are not fully understood, Mason and her colleagues wanted to look into the possibility of food addiction having something to do with it. Currently, food addiction is not classified as being a psychiatric diagnosis but the concept of identifying the reliance on food as a means to cope with psychological distress, could in fact be a viable pathway going from PTSD to obesity.
According to this latest study, women who have severe PTSD are 50% more likely to have a food addiction. As part of the study, Mason and her team of researchers analyzed 49,408 women who were recruited into the Nurses’ Health Study II in 1989 and at that time, ranged between 25 and 42 years of age.
In 2008, participants of the Nurses’ Health Study were asked to complete a questionnaire whereby experiences of traumatic events, as well as PTSD symptoms would be disclosed. One year later, symptoms of food addiction were assessed in the participants. The women with three or more severe symptoms, as defined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale, were deemed to have a bona fide food addiction.
Symptoms according to the scale included eating even when full at least four times a week, having a desire to eat greater quantities of food to help reduce stress, and being focused on a reduction of food intake four or more times weekly. Of the 81% of women who experienced a minimum of one traumatic event, symptoms of PTSD were reported in 34%.
In addition, 39% of the women reported having between one and three of the seven symptoms on the questionnaire, 17% had between four and five symptoms, and 10% stated they experienced six to seven symptoms.
Overall, the women in this study reported having their first PTSD symptoms close to the age of 30. Also discovered from this study was the fact that women with symptoms of PTSD were at greater risk for developing a food addiction. The women without PTSD symptoms had a 6% risk of food addiction compared to 18% for the women with six to seven symptoms.
It was also found that the younger women are when symptoms of PTSD appear, the greater chance of food addiction. Researchers believe the study offers the first real evidence of there being a link between symptoms of PTSD and food addiction, which together, increases risk of obesity.
They also state that the findings of the study are in line with the hypothesis whereby links between PTSD and obesity were observed, which explains why the majority of these women use food to self-medicate against symptoms of traumatic stress.
If the findings of the study can be replicated, women with PTSD might benefit from psychological and behavioral therapy in which eating as a means of coping with stress could be addressed. While the study appears to prove some key points, there are a few limitations. For one thing, PTSD symptoms were assessed via questionnaire opposed to a diagnostic interview.
In addition, food addiction is a highly controversial subject. Therefore, if the findings of the study could actually be applied in a clinical setting would depend on whether professionals in the field of mental health believe in food addiction as being a real psychiatric diagnosis.