Is Stress Making you Fat?
posted on 28/10/2014 6:21:00 AM
Is Stress Making you Fat?
By Tony Wilson
Stress is good. The stress response is a brilliant piece of physiological engineering. Without it our species would have died out millions of years ago. But to understand how it has become synonymous with health issues and can potentially alter the way you process and store fat, we need to take a look at some unintended consequences.
Imagine you are a primate two million years ago and you leave the safety of your tribe to gather some berries. All of a sudden you hear a noise behind you – or maybe you sense it more than you hear it – and when you turn around, there, 200 metres across the plain a lion has emerged and is gathering speed with you in it’s sights.
What happens next is both brilliant and critical for your survival.
You have two choices: you can either stay and fight or run for your life. The first thing you are going to need, regardless of your choice, is a surge of energy to be effective. So your body releases chemicals like epinephrine, mobilises energy stores and dumps it in your bloodstream.(1,3) But you need to get this energy to the areas that need it – your thighs, glutes and hamstrings – so you increase your heart rate and blood pressure. You’re also going to need some more oxygen, so your breathing increases as well.(3)
At this point you also prepare for the very worst scenario – you get horribly maimed and have to drag yourself back to your village through the dirt. So your immune system gets a huge boost and your blood starts to clot in anticipation of managing any wounds that might incur.(4)
But let’s say you get away. Somehow you manage to beat the lion by getting to safety before it can sink it’s teeth in. The post-stress response is as important as the original reaction itself. The objective here is to restore everything back to baseline, so we reabsorb some of the stress chemicals like adrenalin. The key chemical that does a lot of this post-stress ‘clean up’ is cortisol.(4)
You can see why I think this is an amazing mechanism. This cascade of biochemistry and biology is both simple and effective. But here’s where it gets interesting. To understand what makes stress so debilitating over the long-term, why it affects our fat storage and utilisation, and even our calorie intake, you need to take a look at what sacrifices it makes to be so effective in the short term.
The dark side of stress
As you can see, the stress response was only meant to last for three to five minutes. After that you either escaped or were someone’s lunch. But in today’s modern world it’s more than likely you are under stress for hours, days or weeks at a time. And you ignite the stress response when you are under no physical threat whatsoever; when you are sitting at your desk with a deadline looming or lying in bed trying to work out if your job is safe. And this is where things are going awry.(1,2)
To be so effective short-term, the stress response shuts down some important long-term activities. Amongst other things, it closes down long-term growth and repair, including the reproductive system. It shuts down learning and key areas of the brain that control decision-making, behaviours and emotions. These brain regions are very expensive, so the stress response prefers to engage the brain’s ‘auto-pilot’ which is quick and easy.(1,3,4)
Fat storage and energy
Stress and the post-stress ‘clean up’ responses change the way you utilise energy. Remember, your body and brain don’t know the difference between primal, physical stress response and the psychological stress you endure in your hectic lives today. So it treats them the same.
So how does stress affect us?
To recover from stress, you need to replace energy. Cortisol slows down your metabolism so you are replacing energy rather than expending it.(2,3)
You crave simple sugar
Simple sugars fuel your fight or flight response but also are needed to quickly replace the energy that your body thinks it has expended. In fact, high blood sugar levels are the signal for cortisol to switch off.(2,3)
Increased fat storage
You switch on a mechanism that increases fat storage for future use. Your body thinks that this stress caper is going to last forever, so you start to plan for that. Even worse news is that we often tend to store this mainly as abdominal fat.(3,4)
We might forget how to burn fat
With prolonged elevated stress comes prolonged elevated blood sugar. And because you constantly have this readily available energy source, you no longer need to burn fat as energy. Consequently, your body might actually ‘forget’ how to burn fat.(2,3,4)
So under stress you crave calories, slow your metabolism down, store more fat and forget how to burn fat. What’s more, stress also switches off the part of your brain that elicits self-control, the prefrontal cortex. Bad news.
How to you reduce stress?
Fortunately there are a handful of very simple things you can do to combat the stress response.
Sleep is our natural way of reducing stress chemicals back to baseline levels. Without quality sleep, you start each day in a slightly elevated state of stress - compounding the problem. But you need quality sleep. Slow wave sleep is the most restorative, followed by REM sleep.(3,4)
To get more slow-wave sleep, you need to consistently average seven to eight hours a night and go to bed and get up at roughly the same time every day. If you continually wake up exhausted, you're not getting enough.
Don’t work outso hard
High-intensity exercise actually produces the stress response: elevated heart rate, blood pressure, increased adrenalin and cortisol. Running 5km flat out or boxing like your life depends on it are great for heart and lung fitness, but not necessarily for fighting stress. Instead, do some less intense exercise like yoga, relaxing walks, Tai Chi or Pilates.
Stop eating simple sugar
When we eat high-calorie, high-sugar foods we tell our body to set the stress response in motion. The resulting chemical reactions increase toxic waste products and also stop our body's ability to burn fat.(2,3)
Be conscious of making low-GI food choices that won't spike your blood sugar. Even better, also select antioxidant rich foods, to limit the damage caused by stress and vitamin B sources to provide the ingredients for your stress-busting chemicals.
When we operate on high alert all day, rushing from deadline to meeting to family commitments, our stress chemicals stay elevated to keep us ‘up’ so that we can maintain the level of attention and focus we need to do all these things. But when we take moments to slow down, it allows these chemicals to retreat and critical areas of our brain to take a break so they can perform at their best when we need them to.(3)
Find just 10 minutes three times a day to slow down. Breathe, take a slow walk in the sun or just sit and think.
The reality is that stress can increase appetite, fat storage and slow metabolism. But by doing some simple things, you can stay on top of it.
“So under stress you crave calories, slow your metabolism down, store more fat and forget how to burn fat. What’s more, stress also switches off the part of your brain that elicits self-control, the prefrontal cortex. Bad news.”
Tony Wilson is a performance coach, executive mentor and corporate speaker. He combines the science of high performance with management theory to help people understand how to perform at their peak. Visit www.teamcorp.com.au
1) Arnsten, A. 1998, The biology of being frazzled, Science 280 (1711-1714)
2) Emmons, H. 2010, The chemistry of calm, Touchstone, New York, NY
3) Sapolsky, R.M. 2010, Stress and your body, The Teaching Company, Virgina
4) Sapolsky, R.M. 1998, Why zebras don’t get ulcers, Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY
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