Stress… fat…an endless cycle? It may be a classic Catch-22, but how do we put the kibosh on the whole thing to get—and stay—healthier?
Americans: smart and industrious, democratic and free—and, unfortunately, anxiety-ridden and overweight. Stress and fat go together like peanut butter and jelly (on Wonder bread). Researchers have known for over a decade that there’s a connection between chronic stress, fat, and obesity; but in 2007, Lydia E. Kuo and a team of researchers identified the exact chain of molecular events linking the two conditions.
The Stress-Fat Connection
Stress is like a steroid for fat cells. When the body is stressed, one of the substances it releases is a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, in addition to a number of other physiological reactions. It initiates the release of fatty acids from fat tissues and raises blood pressure. This molecule also unlocks certain receptors in fat cells, allowing them to grow larger than normal and to multiply.
Scientists at Georgetown University have found a connection between stress, a high-calorie diet, and extreme weight gain. These scientists tested two groups of mice: a stressed group and a non-stressed group. The groups were fed a normal diet and a high-fat/high-sugar (“comfort food”) diet. The stressed mice on the high-fat/high-sugar diet gained twice as much fat as the unstressed mice on the same diet. The stressed animals used and stored fat differently than the non-stressed ones.
The researchers then experimented with blocking these specific fat-cell receptors or removing the receptors’ gene from the abdominal fat cells. When they did this, the stressed mice on the high-fat, high-sugar diet did not become obese. In addition to not getting as fat, they also did not suffer the metabolic changes linked to stress and diet, including glucose intolerance (prediabetes, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.) and fatty liver—an accumulation of fat in the liver often associated with obesity and diabetes. The lead author of the published report called the effect of breaking this chain of molecular events “remarkable.”
While the researchers talked about the ways in which these findings could be used by pharmaceutical companies to create drugs that interfere with these receptors, thereby reducing fat cells, it might be wiser to simply put some extra time and energy into addressing our culture’s stress epidemic. We’re always on the lookout for the magic pill that will mean we don’t have to do the heavy lifting—and won’t have to change our unhealthy ways. Change is hard, but change can be good.
As mentioned earlier, stress impacts the impulse to eat as well as the type of food we reach for. Foods that are high in fat and sugar seem to counteract stress by inhibiting activity in certain areas of the brain that produce and process stress, which explains why people overeat to feel better in stressful situations. There are healthier ways to cope.
What are the best ways to manage and relieve stress? You’ve no doubt seen countless articles on relaxation techniques, exercise, yoga, and the like. Stress relief is big business in our stressed-out country, so you can find books, videos, websites, gadgets, and services galore that claim to melt away stress and anxiety. What really works? Scientists want the answer to that question, and have begun to study in earnest methods for relieving stress.
Let’s look at yoga first. Once the practice only of serious hippies and people living in ashrams, yoga is now as mainstream as the Stairmaster. Because yoga is touted as relaxing, researchers have conducted studies to measure its effect on stress and health.
Chris C. Streeter and colleagues published one study in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and another in 2010. Both showed that yoga practitioners experience a 27 percent increase in levels of a neurotransmitter known as GABA after a one-hour yoga session. Low levels of this brain chemical are associated with anxiety and depression, so these findings point to the possibility that a regular yoga practice may somehow offset that drop in GABA. Though the initial study was small, the researchers broke new ground using high-tech brain imaging to gauge levels of the neurotransmitter before and after the yoga session, and compared the results to a control group of people who simply read during the hour-long session. Subsequent research has supported the theory that yoga helps reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
It’s not just stress levels that can be helped by yoga. Research has also demonstrated that yoga is effective in reducing blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes over time.
Perhaps yoga—or the type of physical and mental activity that yoga entails—causes a tide of positive physiological responses that can affect our health in any number of positive ways, from making us feel less stressed or depressed to regulating what goes on at the cellular level in our blood vessels and organs.
Meditation is another formerly fringe activity that has attracted the interest of scientists for its ability to dramatically affect health, mood, and behavior. A 2015 meta-analysis concluded that meditation programs can result in small-to-moderate reductions of stress in a number of ways. Researchers speculate that the benefits come from meditation’s ability to mitigate the body’s response to stress, not from an actual reduction in the stress itself.
Maybe activities like yoga, meditation, and running—anything that focuses your mind and alters your breathing to a deeper, more regular pattern—cause a domino effect throughout the body that includes throwing a wrench into the fat-cell-receptor response that caused the stressed mice to become obese.
Whatever it is, the writing is on the wall. Stress is bad for us—really bad. If you do one thing for yourself this year, it should be finding a few ways to be more relaxed.
Other Great Stress-Reducers
Yoga and meditation are proven stress-busters, but you’re better off using a multi-pronged approach to bring the level of stress in your life down a significant notch or two. Here are some other methods to consider.
Numerous studies have been done on the beneficial effects of massage, but research seems almost unnecessary here. There’s nothing that more obviously reduces stress on the spot than a good rubdown. Just walk into any nail salon and look at the faces of the women getting shoulder massages while their nails dry.
Find every opportunity to laugh. Laughter reduces stress hormones, increases “feel-good” hormones and brain chemicals, enhances your immune system’s responses, and helps mitigate the damaging physical effects of stress. All that…and it’s just plain fun. Believe it or not, you can even benefit from faking laughter. Just as fake smiling causes the same physiological changes that real smiling does, faking a good laugh delivers health benefits, too.
A Little Perspective
View adversity as a challenge instead of a threat. First, find a way to make light of the situation. If you feel yourself drifting into a why me? frame of mind, yell “Stop!” (out loud, if you can), and think of yourself as a comic book superhero facing a new challenge. What do I need to do to handle this? What is a strength I have that I can capitalize on to tackle this challenge? What is one small thing I can do to make this situation better? If you take these steps and still feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone on your care team for some extra support.
Social connections are not only important for the obvious reasons. A broad array of personal relationships is associated with lower levels of stress hormones, increased immunity, and overall good health. Studies have even shown that social connections decrease the risk of mortality. Reach out, make new friends, and give people second chances. The more varied your list of social connections, the better.
Updated by Julia Telfer, MPH, 10/16.
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