Brandeis University researchers report that if you're overweight, you may be at greater risk for stress-related diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

It's long known that psychological stress can trigger biological responses similar to the effects of illness or injury, including inflammation. While normal inflammation is an important part of the body's healing response, runaway inflammation can contribute to chronic and life-threatening diseases.

In a recently published paper (“Post-stress rumination predicts HPA axis responses to repeated acute stress”) in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, the scientists observed that overweight and obese individuals have higher levels of stress-induced inflammation than those within a healthy weight-range.

“We've known that overweight and obese individuals already have chronic, low-grade inflammation,” says psychology professor Nicolas Rohleder, Ph.D., the study's principal investigator. “Now, it seems that when you add stress to the mix, it's a double hit.”

The researchers measured interleukin-6 (IL-6), an inflammatory agent linked to stress, to evaluate inflammation levels in normal-weight and overweight individuals over the course of two psychological stress tests. They classified weight based on several factors, including body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage. Individuals with a BMI of 25 or higher were classified as overweight.

On the first day of testing, lean and overweight individuals reacted similarly to stress, despite higher starting levels of IL-6 in overweight participants. On the second day of testing, however, the IL-6 levels of overweight participants nearly doubled, while the levels of lean participants remained the same as on the first day.

The team observed that the relationship between BMI and IL-6 levels was linear—the higher the BMI, even among lean individuals, the higher the IL-6.

“It seems that every percentage point of body fat makes you more susceptible to inflammation,” noted Christine McInnis, a graduate student who was a co-author on the paper. With about two thirds of Americans classified as overweight, and worldwide obesity rates doubling since 1980, understanding the health risks of obesity could not be more important, she added.

In summary, the investigators wrote that “results showed that rumination [defined as repetitive and unwanted past-centered negative thinking] after stress predicted nonhabituation of HPA [hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal] axis responses. This finding implicates rumination as one possible mechanism mediating maladaptive stress response patterns, and it might also offer a pathway through which rumination might lead to negative health outcomes.”

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