Chronic stress may cause hunger hormone to stay elevated for years

A new study has found links between experiences of chronic stress, elevated levels of a stress hormone that increases appetite, and a greater risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The research comes from Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine, where researchers note that this blood-based stress/hunger hormone may remain elevated for years after the stressful situation.

Everyone experiences stress, but in some cases, the stressor can be extreme and ongoing, such as in the case of a sudden traumatic experience, an abusive home environment, and similar things. The new study found that some teenagers exposed to chronic stress will experience an elevation in acyl-ghrelin, which is described as a stress-related hormone that causes an increase in appetite.

The increased level of the hormone was found to persist for years following that initial stressor or traumatic experience — and these same teens who showed elevated levels of the hormone were also found to be at far greater risk of developing PTSD, particularly severe PTSD, a mental health condition that is very difficult to treat.

In addition to the increased PTSD risk, the study notes that because this hormone is present at high levels, these same teens are at risk of over-eating due to the increase in appetite. This puts those teens at risk of developing obesity, which itself is linked to increased risks of certain mental illnesses.

The researchers note that acyl-ghrelin, not the more commonly known stress hormone cortisol, was linked to these outcomes. For this reason, measuring blood levels of acyl-ghrelin may serve as a way to detect PTSD or risk thereof in the future.

The study involved 49 adolescents who had been involved in a terror attack that either left them injured or claimed the life of a parent, family member, or friend. The data from these subjects were compared to data from 39 healthy adolescent controls who hadn't experienced extreme trauma.