Stress and obesity/metabolic syndrome in childhood and adolescence

Int J Pediatr Obes. 2011 Sep;6 Suppl 1:21-8. doi: 10.3109/17477166.2011.615996.


Chronic distress contributes to the development of obesity and comorbid states. Stress is the disturbance of the complex dynamic equilibrium that all organisms must maintain, and is associated with activation of the Stress system comprising of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the arousal/sympathetic nervous systems. The stress system functions in a baseline circadian fashion and interacts with other systems of the organism to regulate a variety of behavioral, endocrine, metabolic, immune and cardiovascular functions. The experience of perceived or real uncontrollable intense and/or chronic stress (distress) may lead to several psychopathologic conditions, including anxiety, depressive and psychosomatic disorders, substance abuse, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, as well as impaired reproductive and immune functions. Developing children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chronic stress. Both behavioral and biological pathways are involved in the connection between chronic stress and obesity in adults and children. Emotional "comfort" eating, lack of sleep, impulsive behaviours and selection of specific foods often characterize stressed individuals. In addition to specific behaviours, dysregulation of the stress system through increased secretion of cortisol and catecholamines, especially in the evening hours, and in concert with concurrently elevated insulin concentrations, leads to development of central obesity, insulin resistance and the metabolic syndrome. In children, chronic alterations in cortisol secretion may have additional effects on cognitive and emotional development, timing of puberty and final stature. Obese children and adolescents are frequently entangled in a vicious cycle between distress, impairing self-image and distorted self-image, maintaining and worsening distress.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Chronic Disease
  • Comorbidity
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Metabolic Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Metabolic Syndrome / metabolism*
  • Metabolic Syndrome / psychology*
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / metabolism*
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology
  • Psychology, Adolescent
  • Psychology, Child
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*