Researchers found that women with PTSD have heightened food addiction, which may explain why past research has suggested people with PTSD are at increased risk of obesity.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects around 7.7 million adults in the US. It is an anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing frightening or stressful events. Symptoms include continuous daunting thoughts or memories about the event, sleep problems, nervousness and feelings of numbness and detachment from others.
According to the research team, including Susan M. Mason, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, studies are increasingly linking PTSD to higher risk of obesity and its related diseases. Last year, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, associating symptoms of PTSD with obesity in women.
Mason and colleagues note the reasons behind such associations are poorly understood, but wanted to look at whether food addiction may play a part.
"Food addiction is not currently established as a psychiatric diagnosis," say the researchers. "However, the concept may nonetheless be helpful for identifying the reliance on food to cope with psychological distress, one plausible pathway from PTSD to obesity."
Women with severe PTSD 'had twice the prevalence of food addiction'
The team conducted a cross-sectional analysis of 49,408 women who were a part of the Nurses' Health Study II and were aged 25-42 at the time of recruitment to the study in 1989.
In 2008, participants completed a questionnaire disclosing their experiences of any traumatic events and symptoms of PTSD. In 2009, participants were assessed for symptoms of food addiction.
Participants were classed as having food addiction if they had three or more clinically significant symptoms as defined by the Yale Food Addiction Scale. Symptoms included eating when no longer hungry four or more times each week, feeling the need to eat higher amounts of food to reduce stress at any point, and worrying about reducing food intake four or more times a week.
Of the 81% of women who had experienced at least one traumatic event, 34% reported no symptoms of PTSD, 39% reported 1-3 of the 7 symptoms listed on the questionnaire, 17% reported 4-5 symptoms, and 10% reported 6-7 symptoms. On average, women reported experiencing their first PTSD symptom around the age of 30.
The team found that the more symptoms of PTSD women had, the higher the prevalence of food addiction. Women with no symptoms of PTSD had food addiction prevalence of 6%, compared with almost 18% prevalence among women who had 6-7 symptoms of PTSD. Furthermore, the earlier the age at which PTSD symptoms occurred, the stronger the association with food addiction.
Commenting on their findings, the researchers say:
"To our knowledge, this study provides the first evidence of an association between PTSD symptoms and food addiction, two disorders of emerging concern for obesity risk. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that observed links between PTSD and obesity might be partly explained by a tendency to use food to self-medicate traumatic stress symptoms."
The researchers note that if their findings are replicated in longitudinal studies, then they could indicate that individuals with PTSD may need to undergo psychological and behavioral interventions that address eating as a way of dealing with stress.
There are some limitations to the study. The team points out that they assessed symptoms of PTSD through a questionnaire rather than a diagnostic interview, which they say could have influenced the accuracy of PTSD diagnosis.
Furthermore, they note that the idea of food addiction is "controversial," and whether their findings apply clinically depends on whether mental health professionals deem food addiction a "legitimate psychiatric diagnosis."
"However," they add, "we believe that the value of the food addiction construct goes beyond its identification of psychiatric illness by capturing a potentially important maladaptive coping behavior that may provide insight into mechanisms linking trauma and PTSD to obesity."
Medical News Today recently reported on a study claiming how memory is processed can influence an individual's risk of PTSD.