You've heard that stress can kill you--that it's a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes--but is it also a risk factor for obesity? Is it really fast food that has made Americans the fattest people in the world? Or is it something more insidious?
Scientists have charted the precise physiological mechanisms that convert a stressful event happening outside us into a stressful result inside us. Muscles contract to armor us against injury. Blood pressure rises, heart rate and respiration quicken to provide the energy we need to fight or flee. Digestion shuts down. Blood will clot more quickly to slow blood loss from injury. The liver releases energy in the form of glycogen, raising blood sugar.
All these processes are designed to cope with acute stress. Unfortunately, when these protective mechanisms are activated over and over again for years and years, they cause great physical harm.
Chronically contracted muscles induce chronic pain. The immune system's impaired ability to turn off inflammation leads to arthritis and other difficult to treat conditions such as fibromyalgia. Chronic high blood pressure and increased clotting cause heart attack and strokes.
Poor digestion results in faulty absorption of vital nutrition, as well as gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome. rapid shallow breathing removes too much carbon dioxide from the blood which then loses its proper acidity, causing heart palpitations, faintness and panic attacks.
Chronically increased blood sugar promotes Type II Diabetes. The release of cortisol from the adrenal glands shuts down the immune system, slowing wound healing and lowering the body's ability to fight off colds, flu and other more serious diseases.
Last but not least, cortisol (We used to call it adrenalin, remember?) fosters deposits of fat, particularly around the abdomen. Have you been dieting, or just eating right, and exercising regularly, but can't lose any weight? The stress/cortisol connection may be the reason.
Here's another reason why stress can make us fat. High starch foods, like pasta, potatoes, and bread, stimulate the production of seratonin, that wonderful hormone responsible for a happy, relaxed mood. Dairy products contain L-tryptophan, an amino acid that converts to seratonin. It's no wonder we crave those foods. They actually help us feel less anxious.
As I noted above, the stress response shuts down digestion. Conversely, digestion shuts down the stress response. Just the act of eating calms you.
So don't stress over your weight. It's normal to eat more and put on weight when you're going through stressful times. Concentrate, instead, on finding ways to relieve the stress you feel. Review your lifestyle and see what needs to change. Then turn your attention to what and how much you eat; how much or little you exercise. Working with your body instead of against it is the key to enjoying lifelong health.
Author Profile: Pamela Adams D.C., holistic health coach, is author of "Dr. Adams' Painless Guide to Computing; How to Use Your Computer Without Hurting Yourself".
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