Obesity Caused by a Viral Infection

Jan 26, 2009 | By: Christie Wilcox

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The word “epidemic” gets thrown around lightly when Americans talk about obesity.  Many argue that obesity in America is so high and “spreading” that it kills as much as an outbreak of any other fatal disease, warranting epidemic status. Others say that their concerns are exaggerated and obesity is no more epidemic than the flu.

The Marburg Virus

The Marburg Virus

It turns out that comparing weight gain to the flu might not be as far off as you might think. Obesity, like the flu, might be caused by a non-lethal infectious virus spreading through the United States.

At least that’s the claim of somewhat startling new research out of Wayne State University. The researchers looked at a type of human adenovirus called Ad36 and its effects on adipocytes – the cells that produce and store fat. They compared the effects of Ad36 infection with a known adenovirus (Ad2) and other fat-inducing MDI (Methyl-isobutyl-xanthine, Dexamethasone, and Insulin) chemicals found in the body.

A Viral Obesity Redux

To understand how a virus might cause obesity, you have to understand how an adenovirus works. Most commonly at fault for respiratory diseases, these viruses are skilled in the art of hostile takeovers of mammalian cells. Once they enter a cell, they are able to hijack the cell’s machinery to produce more viruses. Because they affect DNA and gene activation, they can cause any number of changes in the cell’s function – including, in theory, the storage of fat.

Bird Flu (golden), Credit: ibuzzo

Bird Flu, Credit: ibuzzo

The researchers found that Ad36 infection increased fat storage in cells both in the presence of and without an extra boost from MDI, while the control Ad2 virus did not. Ad36 did this by turning on genes known to be involved in an adipogenic (fat-producing) cascade, including C/EBP, PPAR2, aP2 and G3PDH.

What this means is Ad36 strongly induces weight gain, and thus might be more problematic for those who are already at risk.

Just like those with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk from the flu, those that are already overweight can gain even more by being infected with Ad36, pushing them into obesity. It’s not shocking to learn that Ad36 infection rates are more than double in obese humans than in non-obese ones, supported as a weight-gain agent in twin studies.

What You Can Do

In general, anti-infectious activity may give you a leg up in staying thin as well as healthy.

During the cold season, make sure you:

  • a wash your hands regularly
  • get plenty of sleep
  • eat well

Although no one has yet looked at the human ability to fight off Ad36 infection, getting your daily dose of fruits and vegetables and other ways of boosting your immune system can’t hurt. A lack of dietary nutrients has been shown to make other viral infections worse and turn otherwise harmless pathogens into virulent ones, while boosting your intake of nutrients fights them off.

For that matter, don’t be sucked into simply eating less as a means of being healthier – it’s about what you’re eating as much as how much. Flat out cutting calories actually makes you more vulnerable to infection, not less so. And don’t think you can get off by just hoarding vitamins – research has shown that taking vitamins is no substitute for healthy habits.

Obesity and The Future

Studies like this one are completely re-inventing the study of weight gain and loss. Of course, increasing any of the other fat-producing pathways – like a lack of exercise or a diet that stimulates insulin and other chemicals – is still going to make you heavier. After all, MDI stimulation in this study still did increase fat accumulation.

Obesity is common in the US

Obesity is common in the US

It’s possible that the weight loss seen by those who eat right and exercise is partially due to fighting off infections like Ad36. It might even explain why crash dieters and pill-poppers have a high likelihood of regaining the weight, since the short-term effect is a drop in pounds and does nothing to remove the underlying cause of the weight gain.

The most exciting part about this news is that adenovirus infection may be completely preventable. A working vaccine against highly infectious respiratory adenoviruses was successful in reducing infection rates among soldiers, although it has since stopped being produced. In the future, a vaccine against Ad36 might just help Americans slim down even more than diet and exercise alone – and help reduce the rate of childhood obesity.

We might really be able to fight the obesity epidemic once and for all.

Reference:
Rathod, M., Rogers, P., Vangipuram, S., McAllister, E., & Dhurandhar, N. (2009). Adipogenic Cascade Can Be Induced Without Adipogenic Media by a Human Adenovirus Obesity, 17 (4), 657-664 DOI: 10.1038/oby.2008.630

  • Bret

    Erm let me guess – people wanting to find something else to blame instead of themselves. “The virus makes me eat a super sized big mac and fries with 2 gallons of sugar loaded pepsi”

    Or perhaps its a parasite, we’ve seen many more instances of parasites causing their hosts to undertake high risk activities.

  • Bret

    Erm let me guess – people wanting to find something else to blame instead of themselves. “The virus makes me eat a super sized big mac and fries with 2 gallons of sugar loaded pepsi”

    Or perhaps its a parasite, we’ve seen many more instances of parasites causing their hosts to undertake high risk activities.

  • http://observationsofanerd.blogspot.com Christie

    I’m not saying that all obesity is caused by a virus, just that its possible this virus adds pounds where they aren’t deserved. So people who might have been overweight push into obesity, skinny push into overweight. The point is that adipogenesis is far more complicated than we like to think, and helping people lose weight even more so.

  • http://observationsofanerd.blogspot.com Christie

    I’m not saying that all obesity is caused by a virus, just that its possible this virus adds pounds where they aren’t deserved. So people who might have been overweight push into obesity, skinny push into overweight. The point is that adipogenesis is far more complicated than we like to think, and helping people lose weight even more so.

  • Patti Serrao

    As a nutritionist who works daily with individuals who stuggle with weight issues, there are so many components to look at. Now Christie has help bring to light yet another. This is why looking at the human body as a whole is so vital,yet being able to test for these gene specific,is cutting edge technolgy that can help focus in which direction to take. It also is helpful for a person to know that losing weight for some it isn’t just a matter of will power. Many times knowing certain aspects of a problem can help a person focus on better choices an possibly investigating alternative solutions.

  • Patti Serrao

    As a nutritionist who works daily with individuals who stuggle with weight issues, there are so many components to look at. Now Christie has help bring to light yet another. This is why looking at the human body as a whole is so vital,yet being able to test for these gene specific,is cutting edge technolgy that can help focus in which direction to take. It also is helpful for a person to know that losing weight for some it isn’t just a matter of will power. Many times knowing certain aspects of a problem can help a person focus on better choices an possibly investigating alternative solutions.

  • George

    Wow, a lot of willful ignorance on here. I can’t believe that someone is actually doubting the virus/fat connection. I didn’t see any virologist credentials be flaunted by these poor willfully ignorant souls. What the heck, let them stay fat. Let those that have wisdom do research and help those that want to be helped.

  • George

    Wow, a lot of willful ignorance on here. I can’t believe that someone is actually doubting the virus/fat connection. I didn’t see any virologist credentials be flaunted by these poor willfully ignorant souls. What the heck, let them stay fat. Let those that have wisdom do research and help those that want to be helped.

  • gg belle

    I AM A WOMAN WHO HAS STRUGGLED WITH WEIGHT ALL MY LIFE I WORE SIZE 16 IN HIGH SCHOOL.I COME FROM A LONG LINE OF FAT PEOPLE.I LOOK EXACTLY LIKE MY MOTHER ONLY TALLER,BIG STOMACH,FAT HIPS,LEGS. MY FATHERS SISTERS WERE ALL FAT & WORE SIZE 10 SHOES.SO GUESS WHAT SIZE I WEAR?ANS. 10. MY GRAND MOTHER HAD A CHIN FULL OF WISKERS SO DO I.IT IS ALL INHERETED.THOSE WHO LIKE TO MAKE FUN OF FAT PEOPLE.DUH!I BET YOU MAKE FUN OF PEOPLE MISSING ARMS OR LEGS TOO. GET A LIFE & MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

  • gg belle

    I AM A WOMAN WHO HAS STRUGGLED WITH WEIGHT ALL MY LIFE I WORE SIZE 16 IN HIGH SCHOOL.I COME FROM A LONG LINE OF FAT PEOPLE.I LOOK EXACTLY LIKE MY MOTHER ONLY TALLER,BIG STOMACH,FAT HIPS,LEGS. MY FATHERS SISTERS WERE ALL FAT & WORE SIZE 10 SHOES.SO GUESS WHAT SIZE I WEAR?ANS. 10. MY GRAND MOTHER HAD A CHIN FULL OF WISKERS SO DO I.IT IS ALL INHERETED.THOSE WHO LIKE TO MAKE FUN OF FAT PEOPLE.DUH!I BET YOU MAKE FUN OF PEOPLE MISSING ARMS OR LEGS TOO. GET A LIFE & MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.

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    If these cells were infected with a virus, they too, could cause over-eating.

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