Is Stress Making You Fat and Age Prematurely?

Here are some things about stress that we learned from a great seminar by the Institute for Natural Resources, called Better Brains/Better Bodies.

It was amazing  how much our risk for age related diseases is linked to inflammation.  It was also amazing to learn that abdominal fat carries 4 times more inflammation protein than the fat cells found in other areas of our body.  One of the biggest causes of inflammation is stress.

It seems stress consumes the thought processes of so many people we meet.  It ranges from problems at home, being laid off from work or fearing it’s coming, a sick child or parent, a friend with cancer, to a fear of some imagined bad event or outcome. 

When a client meets us at the gym for their workout, we often have to spend a few minutes helping them leave the stresses of their day behind, and be in the present moment.  Sometimes, it is an impossible task.  While our client is trying to make a deposit in their health bank with productive exercise, they are consumed with their problem, talking about the stress they are under. 

At the end of their exercise session, they have not solved the problem causing the stress and have not been able to get the most out of their exercise program.  Instead of leaving the gym feeling better than they did when they walked in, they leave the gym carrying the same stress they came in with.  Chances are we will see them at their next appointment with either the same stressful situation, or a new one.

This is called chronic psychological or emotional stress.  A very long time ago, the stresses we faced were more physical.  Maybe a life threatening situation of a storm, or huge hairy animals trying to attack you while hunting.  Our bodies would automatically react to these stresses with a “fight or flight” response.  Do I stay and fight back or do I run like hell.  Our bodies would naturally prepare us for this “fight or flight” response by releasing stress hormones (cortisol, norepinepherine, and adrenaline) that make our heart beat faster and breathe deeper to prepare our muscles for a quick reaction. 

This is similar to what you might experience when you are driving a car and the person in front of you, slams on their brakes.  You make a split decision to swerve, or slam on your brakes, to avoid an accident.  You react and hopefully avoid hitting the car in front of you.   The threatening experience is over quickly and you will probably be sitting in the car, feeling your heart pounding, your muscles tensed and may even notice you are breathing harder than normal. 

The human body cannot tell the difference between the different types of stress.  It reacts with the same release of stress hormones no matter what type of perceived stress it is facing.  Emotional/psychological stress can be created by an individual.  Even though there is no real reason for the body to prepare to fight or run, the same release of hormones occurs. 

Emotional stress can go on for days, weeks, months, years, and for some people, a lifetime.   So, stress response hormones are now in a chronic mode of being released, and your body is dealing with chronic stress and your health is about to be in a chronic state of decline. 

We mentioned that cortisol was one of the hormones released in stressful events.  Cortisol has been proven to affect the cells in our brain, and some studies suggest it is partly responsible for an increased risk of accelerated aging of the brain with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

Cortisol has also been accused of causing weight gain.  You may have heard this when some cortisol blocking supplements hit the market a few years back.  However, in 2007 the Federal Trade Commission charged the marketers of two large cortisol blocking supplements with making false and unsubstantiated claims about their products effectiveness with weight loss. 

So, what do we know about chronic stress and its effect on our bodies and memory?

1.   People who are under a perceived chronic state of stress are at more risk for certain age related diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart valve dysfunction, obesity, congestive heart failure, digestive disorders such as Crohn’s Disease and, in particular, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

2.   The stress release hormone, cortisol, can slow your metabolism.  You may notice when you are “stressed out” you gain weight, even though you haven’t changed your eating habits.

3.   What do most of us do when we are stressed out?  We reach for our favorite “comfort food”, chocolate, ice cream, fried chicken, etc.  Most people experiencing chronic stress tend to crave foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt.

4.   Chronic stress can even affect where we store the fat on our bodies.  Higher levels of stress are linked to increased abdominal fat.  As I stated in the beginning of this article, abdominal fat is the worst of the fat cells to have.

5.   Chronic stress can also alter your blood sugar levels which can lead to chronic fatigue, mood swings and significant health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and according to recent research Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

6.   Often times, when we are in a state of chronic stress, our normal routines go out the window.  Things that may have been a normal part of your routine, such as exercise and cooking healthy meals, may be replaced with “vegging out” on the couch, mindless T.V. watching and fast food.

Humans are the only species that suffer from chronic emotional stress.  All other species use their brain only for survival.  There are many things we can’t control, but we can control the way we allow ourselves to think and our attitude towards perceived stressful events. 

We know that 15-30% of people get rid of destructive symptoms with placebo (fake) medication  This tells us that just thinking they are going to get well, allows them to get well.  In other words, the placebo drug empowers the brain to change the way the body feels.  You can also consciously change your perception of stress to allow yourself to think and feel emotionally different about it. 

Here are three things you can do to lower your stress:

1.    Exercise.  Just Do It! (thank you Nike).  Clear your mind and take time out for you and your health.  You will be amazed at how much better you feel when you are done.  You may even have a whole new perspective on what was stressing you out.  

2.   Meditate.  I don’t mean get in the full lotus position and perform rhythmic sounds from somewhere deep inside for hours on end.  Find a quiet place in your home, office, car, close your eyes and try to clear your mind taking deep breaths.  Take 10 minutes a day to clear your head.

3.   Massage Therapy.  Make an appointment with a massage therapist and consult him/her about a plan to decrease stress in your body.  The human touch and quiet moment release pleasure hormones that can combat the stress release hormones.

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Is Stress Making You Fat and Age Prematurely? — 1 Comment

  1. I always look forward to your e-mails, they are so helpful, not only regarding exercise, but also in every day life!
    Patty, I wish you guys had a studio near me!

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