Can Childhood Abuse Make You Fat?

Published: October 25, 2012
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Although certainly just one of many things contributing to weight gain, I suspect that childhood sexual and emotional abuse can also play a significant role.

Having worked with thousands of seriously ill patients over the last 3 decades, including many women who went through childhood sexual abuse, I've seen how many of these women are left with long-term consequences. For example, I have been left with the impression that some (though of course not all) women who suffered sexual abuse as a child would put on a large amount of weight. This seemed to serve as a form of protection, by making themselves unattractive to whoever was abusing them.

New research suggests a physical mechanism that may be contributing to the weight gain. The study looked at women who have fibromyalgia or osteoarthritis pain. It found that the ones with a history of sexual or emotional abuse as a child had significantly higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol — despite the abuse having happened in the distant past. One side effect of high cortisol levels is weight gain. Interestingly, the elevated cortisol was not found in women who suffered emotional trauma as a child due simply to neglect.

Although I need to stress that the study did not report on (or even really significantly discuss) weight gain, the findings of high cortisol in women who suffered abuse has several important implications:

  1. It may be an important physical contributor to excessive weight gain.
  2. It can explain why it would be physically very difficult to lose weight in these cases.
  3. It opens the possibility that physical and emotional therapies may allow the woman to finally lose the extra weight.

Possible New Therapies

As in most medical conditions, I find that people do best by combining both mind-body and physical support. There is a rather amazing yet very simple therapy called the Emotional Freedom Technique which can be very helpful at releasing old emotional traumas. In this simple process, the practitioner guides you through tapping certain acupressure points while you remember the trauma. While doing it, people usually feel the emotional trauma quickly drain away. As a physician, I considered the possibility of this technique working to be absurd — until I tried it. The results are nothing short of astounding, and I highly recommend this technique for anyone suffering from phobias or emotional traumas (including abuse or post traumatic stress disorder). As a physician, it has been very humbling to see how many people can be helped by therapies that fall outside of traditional medicine.

The physical therapies that can lower an elevated cortisol include the supplements Phosphatidyl Serine and Ashwaganda. These can be especially helpful if taken before bedtime when insomnia is also present. Otherwise, they can be taken in the morning. Before using this, it makes sense to do so salivary cortisols to see if they are elevated, and if so at what times of day (see a Holistic physician to guide you). For those of you who are sugar addicts, my new book Beat Sugar Addiction NOW can also teach you how to eliminate the causes of the sugar cravings.

Many of you have suffered severe traumas in your lives. There is cause for hope. It may be time to for you to reach out for help, so you can finally leave the past in the past — where it belongs.

Jacob Teitelbaum, MD

is one of the world's leading integrative medical authorities on fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. He is the lead author of four research studies on their treatments, and has published numerous health & wellness books, including the bestseller on fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome From Fatigued to Fantastic! and his newer The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution.  Dr. Teitelbaum is one of the most frequently quoted fibromyalgia experts in the world and appears often as a guest on news and talk shows nationwide including Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show, Oprah & Friends, CNN, and Fox News Health. 

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