Is Stress Making You Fat?

by: C. Simontacchi

food I s S t r e s s M a k i n g Yo u Tension-reducing strategies to try Fat? when you're craving those high-calorie comfort foods. Some people handle stress by undertaking great challenges and reaching for the stars. Many of us, however, react to pressure by reaching for a bag of chocolate chip cookies. The relationship between stress and eating behavior is complicated. Does stress simply reduce our willpower to make good food choices, or does it actually increase our appetites? And in addition to widening our waistlines, can stress increase our risk for serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes? This article examines the human stress response and how it can contribute to weight gain and other undesirable conditions. Also provided are practical strategies you and your clients can employ when the urge to reach for the junk food is overpowering! BY CAROL SIMONTACCHI, CCN, MS The Human Stress Response The human stress response is a powerful reactive function, elicited to empower the body to either elude a pursuing enemy or fight off imminent danger. Our stress response is intended as a short-term solution to a short-term problem. In today's world, however, we seldom face the kinds of physical dangers that would require such a response. Rather, our modern-day enemies are overloaded schedules, traffic jams, belligerent bosses, financial pressures and a host of other worries. And while these foes may not be ferocious in the short term, they are formidable and can be deadly over the course of our lifetimes. When faced with a stressful situation, our brains signal the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream in order to provide energy to the muscles. Cortisol also has a direct impact on the body's blood sugar levels. If too little cortisol is released, hypoglycemia can develop. If too much cortisol is released, hyper- glycemia can develop, which can increase the risk for developing diabetes (Greenspan & Baxter 1994). High levels of cortisol also result in increased appetite and fat deposits, typically in the cervical area, trunk and abdomen, producing a "spare tire" phenomenon (Greenspan & Baxter 1994). When stress is chronic in nature, cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods of time. Eventually, the adrenal glands become overworked and the cortisol release becomes lowered, or blunted. Researchers studying the link between stress and weight gain have found that men with a blunted pattern of cortisol secretion response were more likely to have increased body fat around the waist, higher blood pressure and blood sugar imbalances (Rosmond et al. 2000). The researchers theorized that "adrenal exhaustion itself may then trigger a vicious cycle of hormone imbalances linked to cardiac dysfunction and increased obesity in men." The same effect has frequently been seen in women. Research also suggests that cortisol, in addition to being associated with diabetes, elevated blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease, may somehow be linked to mental disorders, such as depression. One study found that obese adults who experienced the stress of childhood abuse or abandonment continue to have a heightened cortisol response to even minor stressors many years later and are more prone to chronic depression and marital family dysfunction later in life (Felitti 1993). For more information on the effects of cortisol, see "How the Stress Hormone Cortisol Affects the Body" on the next page. Stress & Eating Patterns Not only does stress increase our appetites, but typically it also makes us crave foods that are calorie laden and contain few nutrients. Unfortunately, no definitive research has determined why stress-eaters make bad food choices or why they tend to grav- September 2001 IDEA HEALTH & FITNESS SOURCE how the stress hormone cortisol affects the body itate toward certain types of foods over others. Some stress-eaters desire high-energy foods containing sugar, especially chocolate. Others prefer salty foods like potato chips or pickles. Then there are the stresseaters who enjoy crunchy foods like potato chips, popcorn and crackers. One author compared these foods to a "punching bag," whose crunchy texture provides a "cathartic outlet for all the tension held in the jaw" (Virtue 1995). "Even the crunching sound is reassuring, reminding us of our power as we crush every morsel with our teeth" (Virtue 1995). Although many people automatically overeat at the first signs of stress, others initially shun food during stressful periods. However, after some initial weight loss due to a reduction in food intake, approximately 40 percent of these individuals typically begin to eat excessively six to seven weeks later and ultimately weigh in above their original weight (Simonson 1990). Seven Stress-Reducing Strategies When faced with a stressful situation, the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol, which can:

IDEA Health Fitness Source , Volume 2002, Issue 8

© 2001 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

C. Simontacchi IDEA Author/Presenter