As countless people can attest, excessive stress can take quite a toll on the body. Some health-related consequences of a stress-filled life include headaches, chest pains and disrupted sleeping patterns. Those struggling with their weight, however, might be especially vulnerable to the effects of stress.
A 2014 study found that, when subjected to stress, obese individuals produced more interleukin-6 (IL-6) protein than people at normal weight. Conducted by researchers from Brandeis University, the study’s authors noted that such proteins can cause inflammation within the body. Previous research has found an association between IL-6 inflammation and several serious health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, arteriosclerosis, fatty liver disease and cancer. Of course, obesity itself increases the likelihood of developing these same diseases.
The research examined how stressful situations influenced IL-6 levels in two sets of participants – one lean, and the other overweight or obese. Over a two day span, both groups underwent several tests specifically designed to cause stress. For example, the subjects fielded tough questions from a hostile interviewer during a mock job interview. Another test required the participants to orally complete a challenging mathematic exercise.
During the study, the research team collected multiple saliva samples from each subject, allowing them to accurately measure the current amount of IL-6 proteins in their bodies. Compared to those who were either overweight or obese, subjects with a lean physique had lower starting levels of interleukin-6. Despite this difference, the study found that the two groups displayed similar biochemical reactions on the first day of testing.
The story was much different for day two of the study. This time around, the levels of interleukin-6 rose nearly 100 percent among the overweight/obese subjects. In comparison, the response of skinnier participants was identical on both testing days. Furthermore, the research team noted that there was a consistent relationship between body mass index (BMI) and IL-6 proteins (body mass index measures a person’s body fat using a person’s height and weight). Essentially, people with higher BMIs had higher IL-6 readings, whereas those with lower BMI measurements had less IL-6 protein in their bodies. Likewise, a subject’s susceptibility to inflammation was found to rise in tandem with his or her BMI.
What it All Means
Since interleukin-6 proteins can trigger inflammation, the authors argue that body weight may play a major role in how stress affects our health. In short, the study concludes that stress could be more damaging to those struggling with their weight than their leaner counterparts, potentially increasing their risk of developing major illnesses. Christine McInnis, the study’s lead author and a Brandeis University graduate student, stated that her team’s research “suggest a possible explanation for the increased risk of illness and disease in overweight and obese individuals. There are almost certainly many pieces to that puzzle, but this may indeed be an important one.”