Plasma metabolomic profiles associated with chronic distress in women

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2021 Nov;133:105420. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105420. Epub 2021 Sep 20.


Several forms of chronic distress including anxiety and depression are associated with adverse cardiometabolic outcomes. Metabolic alterations may underlie these associations. Whether these forms of distress are associated with metabolic alterations even after accounting for comorbid conditions and other factors remains unclear. Using an agnostic approach, this study examines a broad range of metabolites in relation to chronic distress among women. For this cross-sectional study of chronic distress and 577 plasma metabolites, data are from different substudies within the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) and Nurses' Health Studies (NHSI, NHSII). Chronic distress was characterized by depressive symptoms and other depression indicators in the WHI and NHSII substudies, and by combined indicators of anxiety and depressive symptoms in the NHSI substudy. We used a two-phase discovery-validation framework, with WHI (N = 1317) and NHSII (N = 218) substudies in the discovery phase (identifying metabolites associated with distress) and NHSI (N = 558) substudy in the validation phase. A differential network analysis provided a systems-level assessment of metabolomic alterations under chronic distress. Analyses adjusted for potential confounders and mediators (demographics, comorbidities, medications, lifestyle factors). In the discovery phase, 46 metabolites were significantly associated with depression measures. In validation, six of these metabolites demonstrated significant associations with chronic distress after adjustment for potential confounders. Among women with high distress, we found lower gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), threonine, biliverdin, and serotonin and higher C16:0 ceramide and 3-methylxanthine. Our findings suggest chronic distress is associated with metabolomic alterations and provide specific targets for future study of biological pathways in chronic diseases.

Keywords: Anxiety; Chronic distress; Depression; Metabolomics; Network analysis; Women’s health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Metabolomics*
  • Psychological Distress*