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Stress hormone rise at night leads to weight gain

Immature fat cells grow up if stress hormones rise at night. A new study explains the molecular underpinnings of why people gain weight due to chronic stress, disrupted circadian rhythms and treatment with glucocorticoid drugs.

"Yes, the timing of your stress does matter." That’s what researcher Mary Teruel, PhD, told me recently about how stress can spur the development of fat cells.

Teruel was explaining to me the implications of her newly published research on the formation of fat cells.

Teruel and team’s findings, which I describe in this news release, provide the first molecular understanding of why people gain weight due to chronic stress, disrupted circadian rhythms and treatment with glucocorticoid drugs (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, among other diseases). It turns out, it’s tied to the timing of the dips and rises of a class of hormones in our bodies called glucocorticoids — mainly the “stress hormone” cortisol.

The research, which was published in Cell Metabolism, identifies key molecules involved and suggests new strategies to reduce weight gain by controlling the timing of hormone pulses, Teruel told me.

I learned that normally cortisol rises and falls in a circadian 24-hour cycle, peaking around 8 a.m., then dropping through the day and night until it reaches its lowest point around 3 a.m. the next day.

One thing Teruel’s research shows is that fat-cell maturation ramps up if the trough in stress-hormone exposure lasts less than 12 hours — for example if you are up at midnight worrying. Chronic exposure also gets fat cells going. However, short bursts of the hormones during the day don’t have an impact — so I’ve been trying to time my stress accordingly, keeping it low in the evenings and throughout the night to avoid waking up my fat precursor cells.

Teruel explained:

Our results suggest that even if you get significantly stressed or treat your rheumatoid arthritis with glucocorticoids, you won’t gain weight, as long as stress or glucocorticoid treatment happens only during the day. But if you experience chronic, continuous stress or take glucocorticoids at night, the resulting loss of normal circadian glucocorticoid oscillations will result in significant weight gain.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

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