How Discrimination Can Affect the Gut and Increase Obesity Risk

People who are frequently subject to discrimination based on race or ethnicity are more likely to develop overweight and related diseases. There is evidence that higher risk factors begin to show up in the early years of childhood.

Obesity is a significant health problem in the United States, affecting more than 4/10 American adults, according to Trusted Source According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Black as well as Hispanic adults are more likely to suffer from greater rates of obesity.

Similar patterns can be observed for teens and children, with Black and Hispanic youngsters more likely to suffer from obesity than White teens, CDC data shows Source. All in all, 1 out of 5 American teens suffer from overweight.

Certain studies show that obesity is associated with higher rates within certain racial and ethnic groups, which could be due to factors such as:

  • Genetics
  • Physical Activity Levels
  • Access to affordable, healthy, nutritious, affordable
  • exposure to food products that are unhealthy marketing

Other studies have focused on a well-known stressor -discrimination based on race or ethnicity that increases the risk of poorer mental health, sleep issues, as well as physical ailments like heart disease (CVD) and inflammation.

Discrimination is also linked to an increase in Body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, as well as rates of obesity — both in the adultTrustedSource as well as youthTrusted Source as well as youthTrusted.

The findings of a new research study suggest this link between obesity and overweight could be due in part to stress-related discrimination altering the way that the brains of people process food signals and disrupting communication between the gut microbiome and the brain.

The microbiome in the gut, comprised of microbes, including bacteria, that reside in the intestines, is a key factor in both health and disease Sources, such as mental health. It could affect the way we behave.

“Our results show that a person’s brain-gut crosstalk may change in response to ongoing experiences of discrimination — affecting food choices, cravings, brain function, and contributing to alterations in gut chemistry that have been implicated in stress and inflammation,” Arpana Gupta, Ph.D. investigator and the co-director for UCLA’s Goodman-Luskin microbiome center as well as the UCLA G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience In a press release.

Discrimination can trigger stress eating.

The study, which was published on Oct. 2. in Nature Mental HealthTrusted Source, included 107 individuals (87 women and 20 men) from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Participants took a survey that measured their experience of unfair treatment. Based on the responses of participants, the researchers classified people between “high discrimination exposure” and “low discrimination exposure” groups.

People were subjected to MRI brain scans as they completed a “food-cue task” involving looking at images of four different kinds of food two healthy and two unhealthy — as well as a non-food picture to make a comparison.

Furthermore, the participants gave stool samples, which researchers examined to find changes in the concentrations of glutamate-related metabolites, which are breakdown substances.

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that has been linked to inflammation triggered by ailments like anxiousness as well as depression. The research also suggests that glutamate may be implicated in the reward system of the brain and associated behaviors such as impulsivity.

Researchers discovered that people with higher levels of discrimination were more likely to have more glutamate breakdown proteins that were associated with:

  • inflammation
  • oxidative stress
  • higher risk of being overweight

The people who had more instances of discrimination showed higher levels of activation in particular parts of the brain when they were exposed to food-related cues that were unhealthy. The activated brain regions are involved in processing rewards such as motivation, cravings, motivation, and appetite response.

Discrimination-related stress was also associated with changes in brain responses involved in self-regulation — this occurred only with cues for unhealthy foods, not for healthy foods.

Furthermore, the unhealthy sweetness of food products was involved in altering the two-way communication between the brain and gut microbiome, as the study’s results demonstrated.

Researchers believe that the new study, along with earlier research, suggests that racial or discrimination based on ethnicity could lead to changes in the way that communication occurs between brain cells and the gut microbiome, which can lead people towards unhealthy eating habits.

“It appears that in response to stressful discrimination experiences, we seek comfort in food, manifested as increased cravings, and increased desire, for highly palatable foods, such as high-calorie foods and, especially, sweet foods,” Gupta declared in the press release.

“These alterations may ultimately cause people exposed to discrimination to be more vulnerable to obesity and obesity-related disorders,” she explained.


How does discrimination affect health?

Rebecca Hasson, Ph.D. associate professor of movement sciences and the director of the Childhood Disparities Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, stressed that discrimination is a specific type of stress that is toxic, one which is believed to cause negative health consequences.

Discrimination can also take many types based on race, weight, ethnicity, or gender, as well as another social identity.

“So when you look at discrimination, you’re now talking about a specific toxic stressor that can cause both psychological and physiological changes in the human body, which leads to a whole host of diseases,” she explained to Healthline.

The new study focused on discrimination based on race “provide more evidence that this is a serious stressor that we need to pay attention to,” she added.

In a research paper that was published in Psychosomatic Medicine, She, as well as her coworkers, discovered that adolescents who faced racism from peers and peer discrimination were asymptomatic of cortisol, the cortisol stress hormone, during the entire day.


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