Depression raises stress hormone levels in adolescent boys and girls but may lead to obesity only in girls, according to research in a recent issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. Authors of the study suggest that early treatment of depression could help reduce stress and control obesity.

The hormone Cortisol regulates various metabolic functions in the body and is released as a reaction to stress. Researchers have long known that depression and cortisol are related to obesity, but they had not figured out the exact biological mechanism.

Although it is not clear why high cortisol reactions translate into obesity only for girls, scientists believe it may be due to physiological and behavioral differences -- estrogen release and stress eating in girls -- in the way the two genders cope with anxiety.

Researchers used a child behavior checklist to assess 111 boys and girls ages 8 to 13 for symptoms of depression. Next they measured the children's obesity and the level of cortisol in their saliva before and after various stress tests.

Statistical analyses of the data suggest that depression is associated with spikes in cortisol levels for boys and girls after the stress tests, but higher cortisol reactions to stress are associated with obesity only in girls.

"This is the first time cortisol reactivity has been identified as a mediator between depressed mood and obesity in girls," said Elizabeth J. Susman, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. "We really haven't seen this connection in kids before, but it tells us that there are biological risk factors that are similar for obesity and depression."

"We know stress is a critical factor in many mental and physical health problems," said Susman. "We are putting together the biology of stress, emotions and a clinical disorder to better understand a major public health problem."

Citation: Samantha Dockray, Elizabeth J. Susman, Lorah D. Dorn, 'Depression, Cortisol Reactivity, and Obesity in Childhood and Adolescence', Journal of Adolescent Health, Ocotber 2009, 45(4), 344-350; doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.06.014