The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sex hormones in chronic stress and obesity: pathophysiological and clinical aspects

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Aug;1264(1):20-35. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06569.x. Epub 2012 May 21.


Obesity, particularly the abdominal phenotype, has been ascribed to an individual maladaptation to chronic environmental stress exposure mediated by a dysregulation of related neuroendocrine axes. Alterations in the control and action of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis play a major role in this context, with the participation of the sympathetic nervous system. The ability to adapt to chronic stress may differ according to sex, with specific pathophysiological events leading to the development of stress-related chronic diseases. This seems to be influenced by the regulatory effects of sex hormones, particularly androgens. Stress may also disrupt the control of feeding, with some differences according to sex. Finally, the amount of experimental data in both animals and humans may help to shed more light on specific phenotypes of obesity, strictly related to the chronic exposure to stress. This challenge may potentially imply a different pathophysiological perspective and, possibly, a specific treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Eating
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Stress, Physiological*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology


  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones