Many patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have difficulty coping with the anxiety and stress they may feel. This could lead some to turn to overeating to ease their pain.
In a recent study, researchers found that increased symptoms of PTSD were associated with increased food addiction.
When patients had more PTSD symptoms or the symptoms occurred earlier in life, the association with food addiction was greater.
Susan Mason, PhD of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and colleagues authored the study.
PTSD is a serious mental health condition caused by seeing or being in a traumatic event, such as being in a serious car crash, seeing a natural disaster or having a miscarriage. People with PTSD often have flashbacks and anxiety.
Food addiction is a dependence on food — even when they're not hungry, patients may continue to eat to make themselves feel better. They may feel the need to eat a certain amount of a food or suffer from withdrawal when they cut down on food they are used to eating.
Past research has indicated that many women with PTSD are also obese. The authors of the current study wanted to find out why.
They studied 49,408 women from the Nurses' Health Study II in 1989. All were 25 to 42 years old. The women filled out surveys about PTSD and eating.
Of women who said they had lived through trauma (80 percent), 66 percent reported at least one lifetime PTSD symptom.
About 39 percent of the women had one to three symptoms, and 10 percent reported six to seven. Symptoms included reliving a traumatic experience or staying away from reminders of that memory.
Food addiction symptoms included needing to eat more food to reduce stress or eating when no longer hungry four or more times per week. Eight percent of the women in the study were addicted to food.
Women with the greatest number of PTSD symptoms had more than double the number of food addiction cases in women with neither PTSD symptoms nor trauma histories, the researchers noted.
The authors found the strongest association between PTSD and food addiction among women who had trauma symptoms due to physical abuse as children.
The authors noted that food addiction is not yet an official psychiatric diagnosis. They suggested it may be a way some women try to handle their stress, and it may not be the best way.
They also noted that women who have PTSD may need different therapies to learn how to cope.
“The experience of an intense trauma often leaves one with an extreme sense of vulnerability at the core of one's being," said Peter Strong, founder of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy, in an interview with dailyRx News. "Healing this core vulnerability is difficult and often converts into behavioral reactivity such as an addiction. Food can be used as a substitute for the inner healing needed, but it is never sufficient and this can lead to food addiction in an attempt to soothe this inner pain."
The authors of the study noted that this association between food addiction and PTSD may help them develop more tools to fight obesity.
The study was published Sept. 17 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Grants from the National Institutes of Health funded the study. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.