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Higher Stress Levels May Cause Weight Gain in Women

Women have long reported higher stress levels than men. This may be due in part to psychological and biological gender differences in the stress response. The resulting higher cortisol levels in women may lead to anxiety-related weight gain and cause obesity-associated metabolic disturbances.

But what causes these higher cortisol levels in women? And what does the human sense of smell have to do with it? These are two of the questions that Celine Riera, PhD, research scientist at Cedars-Sinai’s Regenerative Medicine Institute, hopes to answer with her project, “Influence of Olfactory Stressors on Female Metabolic Health,” which was awarded a grant from Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Research in Women’s Health and Sex Differences.

Dr. Riera’s research attempts to identify molecular components responsible for generating elevated stress in women. The project evaluates the role of sex-based differences in pathways associated with stress perception in metabolic health, specifically examining the roles of the olfactory senses and the hypothalamus, a brain region that controls hormones.

“We know that the predator odors engage neurons to adjust physiological responses in order to survive,” Dr. Riera says. “However, once animals realize that they cannot evade this stress, their metabolism becomes lower and, quite remarkably, much lower than males’. This hypometabolic response is associated with potential higher weight gain in females.”

By better understanding the connection between olfactory sensing, elevated cortisol and how it’s regulated in the brain, Dr. Riera aims to address an understudied aspect of women’s health.

“Women deal with all kinds of stress-related health problems,” Dr. Riera says. “It’s amazing to see how much higher stress can be in women compared to men. Research on women’s specific stress and adaptation to chronic stress has been overlooked, and we need to generate proper models to solve these questions.”