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21st Century Stress, Cortisol and the American Obesity Epidemic

Author: Melissa Lahti

December 1, 2013

It could be stress that is making you fat

Unfortunately, the 21st century is full of stress.  A person’s body is built to withstand stress, which is not always a good thing.  There are many changes that go on with different hormones being released and so on.  With all these changes come things such as a lowered metabolism.  The problem with stress is that it affects a person’s body in so many ways it doesn’t know how to handle it.

In the days of hunting and gathering, food was scarce and people didn’t get to eat as often as they do today.  To make up for this and provide the body with enough nutrients, the body was programmed to store fat as energy and insulation.  Not knowing when the next meal would come made for many hungry nights where the body needed to tap into those fat stores.  Today food is so abundant that a person will eat more before the body is ready, causing an over abundance of nutrients being ingested and fat being stored in preparation for a famine that will never come.

Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands in response to stress as a fight or flight mechanism. It is in a class of hormones called glucocorticoid which work to increase blood glucose levels in an attempt to create energy to deal with stressful situations.  If cortisol is left in the blood stream too long it will reduce protein uptake by the muscles which can lead to a reduction in lean muscle mass. Cortisol can also cause many more problems in the body that lead to fat storage and metabolic syndrome.

Chronic stress proves to be a big problem as the body doesn’t need all of this glucose it is holding on to so it is eventually re-stored as fat unless the person is able to burn it with some type of activity.  The majority of the time this fat is stored as abdominal fat which is classified as metabolic syndrome and is related to more problems such as, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.  Along with an increased desire to eat from depression and a craving for fat and sugar, a person is bound to gain weight with stress.

Studies have shown that people actually eat in response to stress as a result of high Cortisol levels in the blood.  Stress has been shown to influence the eating patterns in humans in two ways, resulting in under-eating or over-eating.  It has been shown that people with chronic life stress have a greater preference for energy and nutrient dense foods, particularly those high in sugar and fat.  One study in particular showed that high levels of stress and depression actually motivated the ingestion of certain “comfort foods”.  As certain hormones increase in the brain it is thought that people eat the comfort food in an attempt to reduce the activity from the chronic stress response that comes with certain levels of anxiety.

It is evident that stress is a major contributor to weight gain and by getting the stress under control in one’s life we may just be able to help reduce the weight problem in America.  There are many ways to improve cortisol levels in the body and relieve stress at the same time.   A person must get at least seven hours of sleep a night and learn techniques to help relieve stress.  Two major stress relievers include exercise and meditation.  If a person can learn to make time to reduce stress the pounds may just literally fall off.

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