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A new study reports that chronic stress may stimulate obesity by unlocking fat cells, increasing their size, and sustaining them in blood vessels.

These findings are helping people understand the basic biology of fat and why obesity has been increasing so rapidly, especially in highly-stressed Western countries.

“There is a lot of uncontrollable stress right now in our societies. There’s also a lot of inexpensive high-fat food,” said Mary Dallman of the University of California San Francisco.

While studies before had revealed that acute stress can cause weight loss, there had not been much research on why chronic stress, such as long-term job insecurity causes, weight gain.

To test this, scientists put lab mice under chronic stress conditions " standing in cold water and hour a day or being caged with a more aggressive alpha mouse for 10 minutes a day " and then gave them either standard feed or a high-fat, high-sugar diet similar to human junk food that that many humans eat.

“By treating the mice the way humans are treated, which is introducing a chronic stress from which they cannot excape and introducing this abundance of food, we mimicked what happens in American society,” said Zofia Zukowska of Georgetown University who led the research.

Two weeks into the study, the stressed mice who ate the junk-food diet gained about twice as much abdominal fat in their bellies as non-stressed mice who ate the same diet.

The chronically stressed, junk-food eating mice put on the worst kind of fat, with deposits around their abdomen laced with hormones and other chemical signals that cause illness. In addition, the mice developed high blood pressure, early diabetes, and high cholesterol after three months.

Scientists reported in the online journal Nature Medicine that the body releases a molecule called neuropeptide Y (NPY) when it is stressed. NPY stimulates the growth of immature fat cells, encourages mature fat cells to get bigger, and promotes blood vessels necessary to sustain fat tissue.

Scientists also discovered that injecting an NPY-blocking substance prevented mice from accumulating fat, even with a stressed environment and high-fat diet, and it could shrink fat deposits by 40-50 percent within two weeks. These injections could offer an alternative or supplement to liposuction.

On the other side, scientists found that inserting pellets of NPY under the skin of mice stimulated localized fat growth, which could prove very useful in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.

As with most research findings from animal testing, scientists warn that more research is necessary to make sure these injections are effective and safe in people, and they caution that these findings do not replace eating well and exercising.

“I wouldn’t want people to not make an effort to control their weight or lose weight while waiting for this magical solution to fix the whole thing,” said Louis Aronne of Weill Medical College of Cornell University. “This is very promising, but the average person shouldn’t say, ‘I can eat whatever I want and wait for that shot to take it all away.’” News

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