by Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, Guest Editor of Integrative Medicine, on Allthingshealing.com
Although certainly just one of many things contributing to weight gain, I suspect that childhood sexual and emotional abuse can also play a significant role.
Having worked with thousands of seriously ill patients over the last 3 decades, including many women who went through childhood sexual abuse, I’ve seen how many women are left with long-term consequences. For example, I have been left with the impression that some (though of course not all) women who suffered sexual abuse as a child would put on a large amount of weight. This seemed to serve as a form of protection, by making themselves unattractive to whoever was abusing them.
New research suggests a physical mechanism that may be contributing to the weight gain. The study looked at women who have fibromyalgia or osteoarthritis pain. It found that the ones with a history of sexual or emotional abuse as a child had significantly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol — despite the abuse having happened in the distant past. One side effect of cortisol levels that are too high is weight gain. Interestingly, the elevated cortisol was not found in women who suffered emotional trauma as a child from being neglected.
Although I need to stress that the study did not report on (or even really significantly discuss) weight gain, the findings of a persistently high cortisol in women who suffered abuse has several important implications:
(1) It may be an important physical contributor to excessive weight gain.
(2) It can explain why it would be physically very difficult to lose weight in these cases.
(3) It opens the possibility that physical and emotional treatments may allow the woman to finally lose the extra weight.