Stress Can Make You Fat

Your body has a complicated way of helping you deal with stress. You turn on this system when you run away from danger, remove your hand from a hot stove, or argue with a police officer over a speeding ticket. You also use the system when you worry about overdue bills, stress over final exams, or wrestle with a difficult relationship. Through millions of years of adaptation, this stress system helps keep your body in balance and increases your chances for survival.

Consider the lives of Jane deSilva— a 20-something office worker who lives in Los Angeles, and Agg— a 30-year old caveman who lived in southern France 10,000 years ago. Jane lives in a semi-rundown section of the San Fernando Valley in an apartment with paper-thin walls. While she makes $30,000 a year as an administrative assistant in an office supply company, she lives month to month. Things aren’t going well for her: She fights with her boyfriend constantly, the rent is due and she’s out of money, and her car is on its last legs. Jane is in a chronic funk. She would like to exercise, but can’t seem to find the time or the energy. And, as the old Waylon Jennings song said, “She’s sick and tired of waking up sick and tired.” She’s stressed, feels bad and looks worse.

We jump into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and visit Agg in his cave, located just east of present day Lyon, France. Things aren’t going well for Agg either. It’s winter, and food is scarce. His woman left him for another caveman. One morning, Agg woke from a restless sleep to the sounds of screaming and yelling— the tribe from the next valley was on a rampage and attacked his village. Agg was filled with energy as he grabed his cave mashie and— screaming “eeeyaah”— entered the fray to do battle. He overcame his enemies and lived to fight another day.

Jane and Agg dealt with stress using the same body processes. However, stress energized Agg to help him survive, while Jane’s stress ruined her health. We have known for more than 100 years that emotional stress is bad for you. However, we are only now beginning to understand why it’s so destructive. Life processes that have helped us survive throughout history can wreak havoc in our modern-day bodies.

Scientists have found that when we’re stressed, we release chemicals that help us survive life-threatening situations— even if we’re not in any danger. These chemicals arouse us and get our attention. They mobilize our body fuel stores for explosive metabolism. They stimulate a part of the brain that’s involved in anticipation and rewards, and they generate fear. In ancient humans, these body changes increased the chances for survival. In modern humans, they can lead to heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure. Just how does stress make some people fat and ruin their health?

Your Body’s Stress System

The body always tries to stay in balance. Athletes see this when they train. When you overload your muscles, the muscles react to the stress by increasing their size so that the load is easier to lift later. When faced with danger— such as a large animal in the woods— the stress system starts a series of chemical processes that help you survive the encounter. These include raising your blood pressure to help you deliver fuels and oxygen to your cells, and activating your nervous system to speed fuel breakdown, improve vision and increase muscle strength. It also stops processes— such as muscle and bone growth— that don’t contribute to your immediate survival. Our stress system serves us well in these life-threatening situations. However, in modern life— where stress can be constant— this system can make us sick.

When stressed—physically or emotionally— your brain begins a series of steps to help you survive. First, it activates the sympathetic nervous system to “turn-on” your body. This includes releasing hormones, such as norepinephrine and epinephrine (nor adrenaline and adrenaline). It turns on primitive brain centers, such as the amygdala and limbic systems, that increase your feelings of anticipation and fear. Also, it causes the release of brain chemicals that make your adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol. (The adrenals are hormone glands that lie on top of each kidney).

Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. It directs fuel use to help your body survive stressful situations. It increases blood sugar levels, boosts blood sugar production by the liver, breaks down protein for fuel, slows amino acid movement into cells (particularly muscle), and increases blood levels of fat. It also lessens the reaction of the immune system to injury, which reduces inflammation. These processes work great when you face a sudden stress. However, when you’re overloaded with emotional stress, these same processes can cause much damage.

Fat and Stress

Never-ending stress causes high cortisol levels in the blood. Cortisol can cause insulin resistance and increase blood levels of insulin. High levels of insulin raise blood pressure and promote fat storage in your abdomen— particularly around your internal organs. High insulin and cortisol levels also contribute to high blood pressure, blood-clotting problems, and abnormal blood fats (high cholesterol and triglycerides and low HDL— the good cholesterol). All these changes increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems, such as some cancers and mental diseases.

High cortisol levels from stress increase abdominal fat in two ways. First, it increases fat storage in the abdomen. Second, it affects chemicals that stimulate the appetite. This second factor varies from person to person. When stressed, some people cut down on eating and lose weight, while others get fat.

Scientists were baffled by the cortisol-fat connection because people with a lot of abdominal fat usually had normal levels of cortisol at rest. Then they found that some people released a lot more cortisol than other people when put in a stressful situation. These people release large amounts of cortisol when faced with chronic stress, such as money or relationship problems. People who released high levels of cortisol during stress had a considerable amount of abdominal fat, even if they didn’t carry much fat in the rest of their bodies.

Coping with Stress

Research shows that people respond differently to the same stress. Some people deal with stressful situations the way water runs off a duck’s back— it doesn’t seem to bother them much, and they don’t activate the stress system. Stress responders, on the other hand, overreact to the slightest stress. These people get sweaty palms at the slightest aggravation and react to even minor stresses with gushes of cortisol and adrenaline. Unfortunately, these stress responders also experience health problems— more abdominal fat, difficulties with insulin metabolism, high blood pressure, elevated blood fats, and blood-clotting abnormalities. So, stressed people set themselves up for an increased risk of heart disease and a shorter life.

Regular exercise is probably the best way to deal with stress because it fights the chemical processes that ruin your health. Exercise improves insulin metabolism and reduces cortisol released in stressful situations. Regular exercise can prevent insulin resistance, help lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good cholesterol), and cut fat around the middle.
A good diet helps, too. Stress responders have to be concerned about simple sugars in the diet. Eating foods with high levels of refined sugar— candy, cake, white bread and soda— increases insulin levels, which in turn contributes to the fat you store in your abdomen. Also, cutting down on saturated fats— found in some meats and dairy products— will help cut down on the destructive effects of stress.

Lastly, using stress management techniques will also help you cope with stressful situations. Stress is not necessarily bad. It’s how you cope with stress that determines if it helps or hurts you. Stress experts have a few suggestions for lowering your stress level:

  • Try to cut down on preventable daily hassles. If you’re plagued by telephone sales people, get caller ID and don’t answer the phone when one of them calls.
  • Avoid people who bug you. While you can’t avoid your boss or significant other, you can cut down on stressful encounters. Be creative and think of ways to decrease stress-producing conflicts with them. Other people are not as difficult to deal with. If your neighbors bug you, don’t speak to them.
  • Manage your time better. Poor time management is a major stressor. Many people are busy, but how many use their time effectively? Concentrate on things that really matter. Don’t be a doormat for everyone’s problems.
  • Get organized. Do you spend needless time looking for your keys, purse, or wallet in the morning? Put them in the same place every day. Choose a specific location for your bills and important work papers. Disorganization causes needless stress and wastes time— time better spent with friends, family and working out.
  • Improve your communications skills. Miscommunication with your family, friends, or coworkers is stressful. Examine the problem and think of ways to fix it.
  • Develop a personal support network. Get more involved with friends and family. They can help you cope with stress.
  • Try relaxation techniques. There are a gazillion books and tapes on progressive relaxation techniques. Buy one and try it. At the very least, lie down somewhere and read a book or listen to some music (low stress music). You owe yourself some quiet time.

Scientists have known for a long time that stress isn’t good for you. However, it’s only in the last few years that they’ve known why. Fortunately, there are many ways to help you cope. The ball is in your court.

Cavagnini, F., M. Croci, P., P. Putignano, M.L. Petroni, and C. Invitti. Glucocorticoids and neuroendocrine function. Int. J. Obesity. 24(suppl.2): S77-S79, 2000. Chrousos, G.P. The role of stress and the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis in the pathogenesis of the metabolic syndrome: neuro-endocrine and target tissue-related causes. Int. J. Obesity. 24(suppl.2): S50-S55, 2000. Fahey, T.D., P.M. Insel, and W.T. Roth. Fit & Well. Mt. View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 2001. Pasquali, R. and V. Vicennati. Activity of the hhypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in different obesity phenotypes. Int. J. Obesity. 24(suppl.2): S47-S49, 2000.

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