Chronic and acute effects of stress on energy balance: are there appropriate animal models?

Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2015 Feb 15;308(4):R250-65. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00361.2014. Epub 2014 Dec 17.


Stress activates multiple neural and endocrine systems to allow an animal to respond to and survive in a threatening environment. The corticotropin-releasing factor system is a primary initiator of this integrated response, which includes activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The energetic response to acute stress is determined by the nature and severity of the stressor, but a typical response to an acute stressor is inhibition of food intake, increased heat production, and increased activity with sustained changes in body weight, behavior, and HPA reactivity. The effect of chronic psychological stress is more variable. In humans, chronic stress may cause weight gain in restrained eaters who show increased HPA reactivity to acute stress. This phenotype is difficult to replicate in rodent models where chronic psychological stress is more likely to cause weight loss than weight gain. An exception may be hamsters subjected to repeated bouts of social defeat or foot shock, but the data are limited. Recent reports on the food intake and body composition of subordinate members of group-housed female monkeys indicate that these animals have a similar phenotype to human stress-induced eaters, but there are a limited number of investigators with access to the model. Few stress experiments focus on energy balance, but more information on the phenotype of both humans and animal models during and after exposure to acute or chronic stress may provide novel insight into mechanisms that normally control body weight.

Keywords: chronic social stress; comfort foods; corticotropin-releasing factor system; restraint stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Animals
  • Chronic Disease
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Male
  • Phenotype
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Species Specificity
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Weight Gain
  • Weight Loss


  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone