Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stress for Success: Stress hormone may increase appetite, weight gain

From http://www.news-press.com/article/20090217/HEALTH/902170314/1013/LIFESTYLES

Jacquelyn Ferguson
Special to news-press.com

When stressed, even when simply thinking stressful (angry/fearful) thoughts, you trigger your body's physiological fight/flight reaction. The most potentially damaging of the 17 hormones that are part of this stress response is cortisol, a glucocorticoid.

One of cortisol's roles during stress is to provide your body with energy. So, stress might lead you to eat more due to an increased appetite. The fuel your muscles need during the fight/flight response is sugar, so you crave carbohydrates when stressed.

"During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a cue to eat high-carbohydrate foods," says endocrinologist Ricardo Dr. Perfetti, M.D., Ph.D., of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "... you (can) quickly learn a behavioral response that you feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed."

This was adaptive for our ancestors because they actually physically fought or fled from, say, attacking beasts. But we modern humans have to apply the brakes to our stress energy to keep from punching someone out or running away from them, sending stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

When you're stressed over anything your body doesn't know that you're not physically fighting or fleeing, so it still responds with the hormonal signal to replenish nutritional stores, making you feel hungry. The resultant extra eating may cause weight gain.

So, cortisol has become the newest excuse for packing on the pounds. However, research disagrees on whether excessive cortisol actually causes weight gain and fat deposits in your abdominal area.

Some research shows that abdominal fat causes chemical changes that can lower metabolism and increase cravings for sweets, possibly leading to additional weight gain. However, Mayo Clinic dietitian Katherine Zeratsky doesn't believe that the amount of cortisol produced by a healthy stressed person is enough to cause weight gain.

She says that stress causes you to accumulate excess fat only when your body produces large amounts of cortisol due to side effects of medication or an underlying medical condition like Cushing's syndrome.

Others, like Dr. Caroline Cederquist, board certified family and bariatric physician the majority of whose patients have abdominal weight issues, believes our high stress lifestyles create cortisol-induced symptoms, including abdominal weight gain. This can also lead to higher cholesterol and blood sugar levels and elevated blood pressure, all factors for heart disease.

The research on the role of cortisol in obesity remains speculative. Blaming weight gain on stress ignores the possibility that you've developed a habit of eating in response to stress, a learned habit encouraged by brain chemistry that can be unlearned. Future research should settle this question. In the meantime, lower your stress, eat healthfully, exercise and avoid giving into the temptation of carbohydrates when stressed.

Here's the bottom line to weight loss. It always has been, which suggests it always will be - until a miracle weight loss treatment is invented. There are two ways to lose weight: eat fewer (and better) calories and burn more of those calories by moving your body more. Period.