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Study Ties PTSD Symptoms to Increased Food Addiction in Women

First Posted: Sep 18, 2014 05:09 AM EDT

Researchers state that symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are associated with increased food addiction.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs in individuals who have experienced a traumatic event like war, disaster or assault. This anxiety disorder, caused by stressful and distressing events, involves physical harm or threat to physical harm. It is listed as one of the risk factors for obesity and other obesity-related diseases.

This condition till date has been associated with increased risk of ischemic heart diseases, development of vascular diseases, depression and other specific conditions. But, this is the first time that researchers present the association between PTSD and food addiction. Though increased addiction to food is not established as a psychiatric diagnosis, it may still indicate towards the use of food to deal with psychological stress - a probable pathway for PTSD to obesity.

Led by Susan M. Mason at the University of Minnesota, the researchers worked on the data retrieved from the Nurses' Health Study II. Using this study, they retrieved information on exposure to trauma, PTSD symptoms and food addiction.

In this study, food addiction was defined as displaying three or more symptoms that included eating even when no longer hungry for over four times per week, worrying about cutting down on food four or more times per week, sudden urge to consume increased amount of food to lower distress at any frequency and displaying symptoms of physical withdrawal when cutting down on certain foods two or more times every week.

The researchers noticed that out of a total of 49,408 women, 81 percent of them experienced at least one traumatic event. The common traumatic experience the nurses had was dealing with people with traumatic injuries. 

Around 34 percent of those who dealt with traumatic events had no symptoms of PTSD, 39 percent reported 1-3 symptoms on a 7-symptom PTSD screening questionnaire, 17 percent had 4-5 symptoms and 10 percent had 6-7 symptoms.

Women with PTSD, on an average, experienced their first symptom at the age of 30 years. The occurrence of food addition was 8 percent in which 6 percent was among those with no lifetime symptoms of PTSD and 18 percent was among those with 6-7 symptoms of PTSD.

Researchers explain, "To our knowledge, this is the first study to look at the association between PTSD symptoms and food addiction. Our findings are relevant to ongoing questions regarding the mechanisms behind observed associations between PTSD and obesity, and they provide support for hypotheses suggesting that association between PTSD and obesity might partly originate in maladaptive coping and use of food to blunt trauma-associated distress. If replicated longitudinally, these results may have implications for both the etiology of obesity and for treatment of individuals with PTSD."

The finding was documented in JAMA Psychiatry.

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