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Hunger Hormone Linked to Stress and Depression

By Daniel H. Rasolt

Posted: Monday, June 16, 2008

(Defeat Diabetes® News) -- Stress and depression might cause an increase of the "hunger hormone," leading to overeating and subsequent weight gain. This finding could scientifically explain the common phenomena of eating to feel better, and the unhealthy weight gain that follows.

Ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone, increases when someone has neglected eating, giving the sensation of hunger. According to the study, a similar increase of ghrelin may occur when someone is dealing with anxiety, stress and/or depression. The process of an increase in ghrelin, leading to the feeling of hunger and the action of eating, may be considered a form of antidepressant.

The study was performed on lab mice, who were restricted in their diets for 10 days. Over these 10 days, the mice ghrelin level were seen to be four times greater. There was also a control group of mice who were not restricted in their diets. According to the study, "the calorie-restricted mice displayed decreased levels of anxiety and depression when subjected to mazes and other standard behavior tests for depression and anxiety."

The researchers went on to test whether increased ghrelin levels worked to control symptoms of depression in the mice, much as an antidepressant does. In order to simulate human depression in the mice, "the researchers subjected mice to daily bouts of social stress, using a standard laboratory technique that induces stress by exposing normal mice to very aggressive 'bully' mice." This technique has been successfully used in the past to study human depression.

According to study author Dr. Michael Lutter, "our findings support the idea that these hunger hormones don't do just one thing; rather, they coordinate an entire behavioral response to stress and probably affect mood, stress and energy levels" Co-author Dr. Jeffrey Zigman notes that "our findings in mice suggest that chronic stress causes ghrelin levels to go up and that behaviors associated with depression and anxiety decrease when ghrelin levels rise. An unfortunate side effect, however, is increased food intake and body weight."

This result can be used in multiple ways. One possibility is that future research might be able to target specific areas of the brain that detect ghrelin levels, which causes hunger, in order to get certain under-eating patients to eat more (such as chemotherapy patients, or anorexics).

The result is somewhat troubling as well though. Many people suffer from anxiety, stress and depression at various points in their lives, which might lead to over-eating as an antidepressant measure, but this over-eating could start a terrible cycle, and lead to serious health conditions. The over-eating, which leads initially to weight gain and perhaps obesity, could subsequently lay the foundations for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and numerous other conditions related to obesity. In addition, the weight gain in many instances will further perpetuate feelings of anxiety and depression, leading to more over-eating, more weight-gain, and more health concerns. Hopefully now that this connection between depression and over-eating has been uncovered, in treating depression, doctors will attempt to treat the possible excessive food intake as well.

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Shear, Kristen Holland. Zigman, Jeffrey. Lutter, Michael. Nature Neuroscience press release. June 2008.

Daniel H. Rasolt writes for Defeat Diabetes® News. Read more of his original content articles.

Copyright © 2008 Defeat Diabetes Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.

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