O.K., we acknowledge the title is a bit over the top, but didn’t it get your attention? No, stress alone won’t pack on the pounds, but there’s still truth in them thar’ hills. We thought we’d dig up some of the dirt on stress – fat and otherwise.
The fact is we think stress gets short shrift when it comes to the realm of health and wellness. As you know, we spend a lot of time talking about how our eating and exercising impacts our biochemistry. Stress absolutely, positively plays into this same picture. A great diet and diligent exercise routine are never wasted effort, but chronic high stress can put a serious damper on the benefits you should be getting from your healthy endeavors.
Let’s examine stress as saboteur. First off, we all know that a moderate amount of stress is good – natural even. (Grok didn’t live in Pleasantville after all.) In the face of danger, the physiological “fight or flight” stress response was crucial to our favorite caveman’s self-preservation. Ah, the flooding of adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine) and norepinephrine, the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, the emergency shut off of the immune system. We notice the sweating, muscle tension and the heightened sense of smell and hearing, the sudden increase in heart rate (getting uncomfortable yet?). All these helped our ur-selves either attack that Sabertooth tiger or run like heck—to get away from the snarling beast. Flip to modern day when the “predator” is more likely a passive-aggressive co-worker, catty neighbor, daily traffic jam, or looming pile of bills in the corner, and suddenly the fight or flight instinct isn’t as relevant or particularly helpful. (But there’s always the “vacation from your problems” ala What About Bob?…)
Stress today is more often a chronic low-grade condition than the powerful punch complete with cathartic end. (Maybe that’s why we love adventure-thriller movies so much?) That low level of stress day after day acts as insidious antagonist, aforementioned saboteur. That adrenal action described earlier? The constant release of cortisol, our star of the hormonal show, eventually causes major functions in the body to shut down or operate at only a subpar level – immune function, digestion, endocrine function, etc. Do you get sick more often when you’re under a lot of stress? We thought so. Wonder why so many people have digestive issues in this country (besides the prevalence of obesity)? Ever heard of adrenal exhaustion? Stress is nearly always a – if not the – major factor. Oh, and the list goes on and on. A chronically high level of cortisol and other stress hormones impacts the brain, compromising memory function (Where are those stupid car keys?!) as well as the balance of dopamine and serotonin instrumental for psychological well-being.
Yeah, yeah, you might say. What about the fat connection? The bottom line is this: research has demonstrated that stress can contribute to the build-up of body fat as a result of stress’s effect on hormonal secretion and its physiological consequences. Let us explain. Cortisol sets off an increased rush of glucose from your tissues (including breaking down muscle tissue to make glucose). Yikes! Remember, the body thinks something major is going down. In response to the rise in glucose comes the rise in insulin. You know the drill. Do this again and again, day after day, and what do you have? Insulin resistance eventually.
In the meantime, the cortisol is signaling the body to store fat. (The body thinks it will need it after all.) Specifically, the body directs fat storage in the abdomen, around the organs, where there are more receptors for cortisol and a greater supply of blood.
A lot of research has been done on this in the last few years highlighting the contribution of stress to abdominal fat in particular.
And don’t think that you’re off the hook if you happen to be thin. A study out of Yale University looked at how thin women developed abdominal fat in connection with stress. Individual response to stress, not just “body shape” plays a significant role. Women in the study who reacted more severely to the study’s assigned stressors had more abdominal fat. The trend encouraged the researchers to suggest that in women’s case “it is possible that stress may influence body shape more than for men.”
So, where are the gentlemen in all this? The Yale researchers believe the same stress “relationships likely apply to men” but that it works within men’s tendency to accumulate fat around the abdomen anyway as opposed to around the hips, as many women do.
Ultimately, excess stress and associated cortisol levels can undo all of us, but we all have plenty of options to control the impact. As the researchers note, “smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise all contribute to greater abdominal fat.” Add to these other lifestyle factors like diet, sleep (duration and quality) as well as stress processing, and you’ve got plenty to work with.
For instance, research published last year in Nature Medicine highlighted the coinciding impact of a “high fat, high sugar” diet (always a bad idea) with stress on the release of a neurotransmitter, neuropeptide Y, which “increases fat cell proliferation and vasularization.” The researchers found “increased secretion of neuropeptide Y” when stress was coupled with the high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. And so we’re back to where we started. Stress, by itself, does not make a person fat. Chronic stress, together with poor diet and lifestyle, will come back to bite you in the butt – or belly, we should say.