Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Stress Connection

Cortisol Molecule
Ever wondered how stress causes weight gain?

Stress creates elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone which is part of the fight-or-flight response, an important part of survival. Because of its role as a "survival" hormone, its physical manifestations include things that increase an organism's chances of survival in dangerous situations. These include:
  • Suppression of the immune system - When you're worried about surviving the next few minutes, your body doesn't care about you getting the flu in a few days.
  • An increase in blood sugar concentrations - Cortisol causes the liver to make more glucose and it also blocks insulin receptors at tissues and organs not essential to survival. When you're trying to survive, you don't care if your bladder has enough glucose.
  • Protein is converted to glycogen - When fleeing a potentially dangerous situation, you need readily available supplies of energy. Glycogen satisfies this criteria, but you're robbing your protein stores to create even more glucose.
  • Your body stores fat - Extreme fasting causes an increase in cortisol, which, paradoxically increases the amount of fat your body stores. The reason? Your body is afraid it isn't going to have enough energy in the future, so it creates more fat, a very efficient way to store and receive energy.
End result: your cells become insulin resistant, your blood becomes awash in glucose and you put on weight.

We rarely have situations where we need to flee from lions or other predators, situations that the fight-or-flight response was created to handle. But, our modern, fast-paced and stressful culture keeps this response active at low levels for days on end. This contributes to poor health, including obesity. And obesity isn't the only negative effect. In my next post, I'll discuss how stress is making you dumber.

Meditate, do yoga, play with your grandchildren, listen to calming music - find what relaxes you and try to set aside time as often as possible to do those things!

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