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Stress Can Make You Fat!

by Jeanne Rhodes

The National Institutes of Health reports that 64% of Americans are now overweight. Constant health warnings and millions of dollars spent urging Americans to eat right and exercise, and still 97 million people can’t seem to lose weight. Is the increase of stress in our modern day’s lifestyles to blame? Dr. Pamela Peeke, an internist specializing in nutrition, metabolism and stress physiology concludes that stress is the source of the problem for many Americans.

Short-term stress like running after a bus doesn’t do the damage. It’s chronic, unrelenting, uncontrolled stress - the kind that stays with us day in and day out that’s the problem. Dr. Peeke has concluded that stress is literally blowing up our bodies - setting off physiological reactions that makes overeating hard to resist. She states that, “Stress makes you frazzled. Stress can make you sick. But did you also know that stress can make you fat?” The unrelenting stress we live with gives us chronically elevated levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is secreted when we’re under stress and can be a powerful appetite stimulant.

Dr. Peeke discovered the connection between stress and fat production when she did research at the National Institute of Health on people with Cushing’s Syndrome, a disease in which excessive secretion of the stress hormone cortisol is produced. Dr. Peeke found evidence that cortisol is doing the same thing to people during stress only to a lesser degree.

Peeke, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, feels that stress plays a central role in weight gain by affecting both appetite and location of excess body fat.

There are psychological and physiological responses to stress. Rewarding yourself with food after a stressful day is common - eating is one way we nurture ourselves. Dr. Peeke feels this is also a physiological reason and calls it the “stew and chew” response. In addition, stress triggers the brain to release a corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) to initiate the “fight or flight” mode (the body gears up for battle). The pupils dilate, blood is diverted from digestion to brain and muscles, blood clotting increases, the lungs take in more oxygen, etc. But, there’s more happening that affects body fat production. The appetite is suppressed, CRH triggers release of the hormone adrenaline and cortisol, which mobilize both carbohydrates and fat for quick energy.

When the stress ends, adrenaline drops, but the cortisol lingers to increase appetite so you can replace the carbohydrate and fat we have used while running 5 or 6 miles to get away from that tiger that wanted to make you his meal! But, there are no more tigers out there to run from. So the cortisol increases appetite to replace the carbohydrates and fat we should have burned (and didn’t), and ends up as body fat. This wonderful survival mechanism was meant to work for us, but works against us by causing the body to refuel when it doesn’t need to! The quick, stress-inducing episodes aren’t as problematic says Dr. Peeke. It’s feeling stressed out over a long period of time that can be fattening because sustained stress keeps cortisol elevated, which, in turn, keeps appetite up too.

To make matters worse, when stress and cortisol stay high, so will insulin levels, according to Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph. D., professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University. This means not only increased body fat but it tends to pack on in the abdominal area. This was emphasized in a recent study conducted by researchers at Yale University and published in the September issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. The study involved 30 women with high levels of stress with 29 women with normal stress levels. The women with high stress levels had an increased production of cortisol, with stored fat mostly in the abdominal area. The 20 women with lower stress had a decreased production of cortisol and stored fat mostly in their hips. The authors of the study felt that cortisol causes increased fat to be stored in the abdominal area of the body.

Excess abdominal fat is strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease according to a Harvard Medical School study published in the December 1998 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association. Excess abdominal fat also contributes to hypertension and Adult On-Set Diabetes.

So, what can you do to avoid the weight-gain and health problems brought on by stress? Dr. Peeks strongly recommends a wellness lifestyle that includes exercise. “Exercise”, she says, “is the ultimate neutralizer of the effects of stress.” Exercise is a crucial tool to fight weight gain and cut stress which, Dr. Peeks says, helps you lose and keep weight off. Why? “During vigorous exercise, the body secretes biochemicals called beta endorphins, which can calm you down and decrease the levels of stress hormones in your body.” Exercise, then, is the handle on the faucet that turns off the cortisol! How much exercise does it take? Aim for 45 minutes a day minimum, even if you have to split it up into 15 minutes sessions. The health benefits alone are worth it and you’ll see your weight go down - especially in the midsection!

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author and Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.

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