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Physiol Behav. 2008 May 23;94(2):169-77. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.12.011. Epub 2007 Dec 23.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis in the regulation of energy balance.

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Department of Human Biology, Maastricht University, P.O. Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, The Netherlands.


Human (visceral) obesity is associated with alterations hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functioning. It is however not completely clear whether the HPA axis is causally or co-incidentally related to (visceral) obesity. This review summarizes supporting data of an involvement of the HPA axis in the development of (visceral) obesity. First, several DNA polymorphisms related to HPA axis functioning are correlated to the development of obesity. Second, chronic elevation of circulatory glucocorticoid concentrations, as in Cushing's disease, results in increased abdominal adiposity. Third, (visceral) obesity is associated with a diminished capacity of cortisol to suppress its own secretion. HPA axis functioning might affect energy balance through affecting energy intake. Both CRH and cortisol influence physiological, central mechanisms involved in the regulation of food intake. Still, general activation of the HPA axis has shown to have inconsistent effects on food intake in humans. This inconsistency may partially be explained by gender differences, individual differences in the functioning of the HPA axis, as well as differences in attitude towards eating. In particular, women with high scores on dietary restraint are prone to stress-induced hyperphagia. Dietary restraint scores, in turn, are positively correlated to basal and dexamethasone-suppressed cortisol levels, indicating a complex dual relationship between stress, HPA axis functioning, attitude towards eating and the risk for stress-induced hyperphagia. In the Western society, with chronically high ambient levels of stress and the availability of high caloric foods, this relationship may imply a risk for the development of (visceral) obesity and the metabolic syndrome.

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