Past trauma, stress and weight gain

Research highlights an association between adverse life experiences and the subsequent development of obesity or being overweight. In psychology carrying extra weight has been referred to as a ‘protective shield’. It is generally accepted that individuals with past trauma can use food as a maladaptive coping tool and so weight gain tends to follow.


These theories overlook the physiological processes that occur in individuals who experience trauma. These processes favour fat storage and drive food cravings. They can lead to disordered eating and weight gain. In some cases, obesity or morbid obesity is the result.

The mechanisms driving these processes make controlling weight and managing food intake difficult. The consequence of this can be feelings of shame and failure when relying on willpower alone. Willpower is a defunct tool in the presence of physiology. 

Trauma and stress disrupt the nervous system and this can affect how metabolism is regulated. Initially, people might experience some weight loss during or after trauma; this is usually driven by adrenaline release and a decrease in appetite. The effects tend to be short-lived as cortisol release takes over. Cortisol has a significant effect on food choice. Leading to cravings for high-energy, sweet, starchy foods. 

High cortisol levels promote fat storage, encouraging your body to store ‘energy’ for the tough times it senses. Cortisol release promotes fat storage in the abdominal area. High cortisol can also damage cells making them less receptive to insulin. 

The release of inflammatory cytokines post-trauma also prevents insulin from being taken up by the cells. Insulin resistance appears more frequently in people with a traumatic background. The combination of insulin resistance and high cortisol creates the perfect environment for weight gain. They create a very tricky hurdle to overcome when trying to lose weight through willpower alone. The deposition of excess fat around the midsection is particularly harmful to health. This can predispose an individual to the development of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Another obstacle is that as weight increases, the fat cells themselves become metabolically active. These cells stimulate and perpetuate inflammatory processes that can affect weight. It's a vicious cycle where weight increases and consequently so does inflammation - which encourages more fat to be stored as excess weight.

The hunger hormone ghrelin also rises along with cortisol. It sends a signal to your brain that you need to eat. Ghrelin also rises when we go on a diet and reduce calorie intake. As stress hormones continue to be high, our cells become less sensitive to leptin. Leptin is the hormone that signals that we have eaten enough. Overeating is a common indication that our cells have become leptin resistant. 

As well as driving cravings, these processes can all affect energy levels. The cells don’t respond appropriately to signals and this can lead to poor energy production. Reaching for sugary food or energy-dense food to stimulate energy levels becomes a habit. This can lead to relying on these foods to get through the day. 

Trauma can also create conditions that can change the composition of our gut bacteria. It can lead to lower diversity and there can be the potential for pathogenic bacteria to spread and take hold in the gut. This can affect our mental and cognitive health through neurotransmitter production and inflammatory signalling via the vagus nerve. 

Trauma and stress create clear biochemical dysfunction that drives disordered eating patterns and overconsumption of food. Yet, the conventional opinion is that lack of willpower is the driver that causes and maintains obesity and weight gain. Nutritional and lifestyle interventions that regulate the body’s stress response are appropriate therapy for individuals with past trauma and ongoing weight issues. 

If you are looking for support on your nutritional journey, do get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, B13 8JP
Written by Sarah Hanratty
Birmingham, B13 8JP

Sarah is an experienced practitioner at the Brain Food Clinic specialising in physical, mental and cognitive well-being.

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