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How Stress Can Make You Fats

Your body has a complicated way of dealing with stress. You turn this system on when you’re running away from danger, removing your hand from a hot stove, or arguing with a police officer about a parking ticket. You also use the system when you are concerned about overdue bills, stress at final exams, or problems with a difficult relationship. Through millions of years of adaptation, this stress system helps keep your body balanced and increases your chances of survival.

Scientists have found that when we are stressed, we release chemicals that help us survive life-threatening situations – even when we are not in danger. These chemicals get us and get our attention. They mobilize our body fuel stores for explosive metabolism. They stimulate a part of the brain involved in anticipation and rewards, and they create fear. In the elderly, these body changes increased the chances of survival. In modern humans, they can lead to heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. How does stress make some people fat and ruin their health?

Your body’s stress system

The body always tries to keep its balance. Athletes see this when they exercise. When you overload your muscles, the muscles respond to the stress by increasing their size so that the load can be lifted more easily later. When the stress system is exposed to danger – such as a large animal in the forest – it starts a series of chemical processes that will help you survive the encounter. These include raising your blood pressure to deliver fuel and oxygen to your cells and activating your nervous system to accelerate fuel breakdown, improve eyesight, and increase muscle strength. It also stops processes like muscle and bone growth that don’t contribute to your immediate survival. Our stress system helps us in these life threatening situations. However, in modern life – where stress can be constant – this system can make us sick.

When your brain is physically or emotionally stressed, it begins a series of steps to survive. First, it activates the sympathetic nervous system to turn your body on. This involves the release of hormones like noradrenaline and adrenaline (still adrenaline and adrenaline). It activates primitive brain centers like the amygdala and limbic systems, which increase your sense of anticipation and fear. It also releases brain chemicals that cause your adrenal glands to produce a hormone called cortisol. (The adrenal glands are hormonal glands that lie on each kidney).

Cortisol is your body’s stress hormone. It controls fuel consumption to help your body survive stressful situations. It increases blood sugar levels, increases blood sugar production in the liver, breaks down protein for fuel, slows down the movement of amino acids in cells (especially muscles), and increases the amount of fat in the blood. It also decreases the immune system’s response to injury, thereby reducing inflammation. These processes work great when faced with sudden stress. However, when you are overwhelmed with emotional stress, the same processes can do a lot of damage.

Fat and stress

Infinite stress causes high levels of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol can cause insulin resistance and increase the level of insulin in the blood. High levels of insulin raise blood pressure and promote fat storage in your stomach – especially around your internal organs. High levels of insulin and cortisol also contribute to high blood pressure, blood clotting problems, and abnormal blood lipids (high cholesterol and triglycerides, and low HDL – the good cholesterol). All of these changes increase your risk of heart disease and other health problems like cancer and mental illness.

High levels of cortisol from stress increase belly fat in two ways. First, it increases fat storage in the abdomen. Second, it affects chemicals that stimulate appetite. This second factor varies from person to person. When stressed, some people cut down on food and lose weight, while others get fat.

The scientists were amazed by the cortisol-fat connection because people with a lot of belly fat usually had normal levels of cortisol at rest. Then they found that some people released much more cortisol than others in a stressful situation. These people release large amounts of cortisol when faced with chronic stress such as money or relationship problems. People who released high levels of cortisol when they were under stress had significant amounts of belly fat, even if they didn’t carry much fat in the rest of their bodies.

To deal with stress

Research shows that people react differently to the same stress. Some people deal with stressful situations like water running off a duck’s back – it doesn’t seem to bother them very much and they don’t activate the stress system. Stress reactors, on the other hand, react to the slightest stress. These people get sweaty palms at the slightest aggravation and respond to even minor stresses with cortisol and adrenaline rushes. Unfortunately, these stress reactors also have health problems – more belly fat, difficulties with insulin metabolism, high blood pressure, increased blood lipids, and blood clotting disorders. So stressed people have adjusted to an increased risk of heart disease and a shorter life.

Regular exercise is probably the best way to manage stress as it fights the chemical processes that are ruining your health. Exercise improves insulin metabolism and reduces the cortisol released in stressful situations. Regular exercise can prevent insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and increase HDL (good cholesterol), as well as cut fat in the middle.

Good nutrition also helps. Stress responders need to worry about simple sugars in their diet. Eating foods high in refined sugar – candy, cakes, white bread, and soda – increase insulin levels, which in turn contributes to the fat you store in your tummy. Reducing saturated fats, which are found in some meat and dairy products, also helps reduce the damaging effects of stress.

Finally, using stress management techniques will also help you deal with stressful situations. Stress isn’t necessarily bad. It’s the way you deal with stress that determines whether it helps or hurts you. Stress experts have a few suggestions for lowering your stress levels:

Try to avoid avoidable daily problems.

If phone vendors plague you at work from home, block the calls, mute the ringtone, and don’t answer the phone until your work day is up.

Avoid people who annoy you.

While you can’t avoid your boss or any other person, you can reduce stressful encounters. Be creative and see how you can use them to reduce stress-related conflict. Other people aren’t that difficult to deal with. If your neighbors annoy you, don’t talk to them.

Manage your time better.

Bad time management is a major stressor. Lots of people are busy, but how many are using their time effectively? Focus on things that are really important. Don’t be a doormat for all problems.

Organize yourself.

Do you spend unnecessary time in the morning looking for keys, purse or wallet? Put them in the same place every day. Choose a specific location for your invoices and important working papers. Disorganization causes unnecessary stress and wastes time – time better spent with friends, family, and exercise.

Improve your communication skills.

Misunderstandings with your family, friends or colleagues are stressful. Investigate the problem and figure out how to fix it.

Develop a personal support network.

Get more involved with friends and family. They can help you deal with stress.

Try relaxation techniques.

There are tons of books, DVDs, and resources online on progressive relaxation techniques. Try one of them. At least lie down somewhere and read a book or listen to music (low-stress music). You owe yourself a quiet time.

Scientists have long known that stress is not good for you. However, only in recent years have they known why. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to help you cope. The ball is in your field.


Cavagnini F, M Croci, P, P Putignano, ML Petroni and C Invitti. Glucocorticoids and Neuroendocrine Function. Int J Obesity, 24 (Supplement 2): S77-S79, 2000.

Chrousos GP. The role of stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in the pathogenesis of metabolic syndrome: neuroendocrine and target tissue-related causes. Int J Obesity, 24 (Supplement 2): S50-S55, 2000.

Fahey TD, PM Insel and WT Roth. Fit well. Mt. View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co., 2001.

Pasquali R and V Vicennati. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in various obesity phenotypes. Int J Obesity, 24 (Supplement 2): S47-S49, 2000.

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