UCSF researchers seek overweight women for study of stress reduction and weight management

By Bonz Otsuki on January 04, 2007

Elissa Epel, PhD -----

Scientists have shown in the past that psychological stress is linked to weight gain and fat storage—especially added fat around the waistline, where it raises the risk of heart disease. Researchers at UCSF are set to explore whether a stress-reduction program could reverse that fat storage. They seek 50 “apple-shaped,” overweight women to help them find out.

Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD, at the UCSF Center for Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment (COAST) are launching a pilot study to examine whether mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques can help women start to lose belly fat - and, over the long run, help them to lose weight and keep it off. “To my knowledge, this is the first controlled study of meditation-based stress reduction for weight management in healthy overweight women,” says Daubenmier, a UCSF COAST postdoctoral fellow.

The researchers will use ultrasound to measure how much fat is stored around participants’ waistlines and around their organs, and will track other markers of poor health associated with being overweight, including the level of glucose control, a warning of future diabetes. They also will look at hormones that indicate stress levels and may serve as markers of physiological dependence on comfort foods.

“This intervention is novel, so we can’t promise weight loss. However, converging evidence from animal and human studies about stress and obesity points to the promise of an intervention like this—one that tackles both life stress and emotional eating,” says Epel, UCSF assistant professor of psychiatry and an expert on the physiological effects of stress.

The study aims to help emotional eaters—people who reach for candy bars and potato chips when they have a big deadline at work or after a stressful argument with a friend, Daubenmier says.

“We know that stress increases the preference for high-fat, sweet food. Recent research shows that such ‘comfort food’ stimulates the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals in the brain, including opioids. And animal studies show that comfort food reduces stress arousal. So there’s a physiological basis to comfort food eating. It’s a natural drive.

“Over time people may depend on comfort food to manage their emotions. The point of this intervention is to provide novel ways to manage stress and to break the stress-eating link,” she says.

The study is called CALMM - Craving and Lifestyle Management through Mindfulness. Women participating in the research will join weekly sessions that teach mindfulness-based meditation practices targeting food intake, and also learn about the latest neuroscience that explains why we overeat and store fat at our bellies. Participants will be randomized to partake in the program immediately or after six months.

“Our hope is that the intervention will change their eating patterns, which may affect their weight, and the stress reduction itself may have a positive influence on their hormonal balance and distribution of body fat.” Daubenmier says.

With 65 percent of Americans classified as overweight or obese, the study by Daubenmier and Epel comes as the nation faces an epidemic of obesity amid a burgeoning weight loss industry aimed at helping Americans diet. Most diets suggest particular foods and how much of them to eat, but don’t address the underlying problem that the inevitable stresses of life sabotage weight loss, Daubenmier says.

For the study, Daubenmier and Epel are seeking overweight women who weigh less than 300 pounds and have apple-shaped physiques. Participants must be pre-menopausal, between the ages of 21 and 50, and not recently pregnant. They also must not be diabetic or suffering from heart disease, although they may be at risk for those conditions.

Women who are accepted into the study will meet weekly over a 3-month period to learn stress reduction techniques. They also will become expert at identifying thoughts and feelings that trigger overeating, recognizing the difference between emotional and physical hunger, and managing food cravings in highly vulnerable situations such as at restaurants, grocery stores, and in the kitchen. Participants also will complete health assessments before and after the program and will be financially compensated for their time.

For more information, or to find out if you’re eligible for the study, email ucsfcalmmstudy@yahoo.com

This research is funded by the Mount Zion Health Fund, a public charity that supports patient care, education and research, primarily at UCSF Mount Zion Medical Center.

In addition to Daubenmier and Epel, co-principal investigators in the research are Frederick Hecht, MD, Research Director of the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and Margaret Kemeny, PhD, Director of the UCSF Health Psychology Program.

UCSF is a leading university that advances health worldwide by conducting advanced biomedical research, educating graduate students in the life sciences and health professions, and providing complex patient care.

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