Is Stress Making You Fat?

In the face of prolonged or chronic stress, cortisol levels can remain constantly high, keeping you in a state of perpetual hunger.


Terror alerts, hurricane Charley, infectious diseases, the war in Iraq, violence in our schools, inflation, tuition, and on and on and on. Today's world can be a stressful place, but as firefighters, we experience first hand what is usually just an attention-grabbing headline to the average Jane or Joe. Even when we're not barreling to the scene of some disaster, we engage in endless drills, critiques and training sessions, as we artificially recreate these same heart-pounding experiences.

But did you know that your body's response to stressful stimuli could be making you fat?

The Flight or Fight Response

Millions of years ago, our pre-firefighter, cavemen ancestors also needed to react swiftly to any perceived threat. This Flight or Fight Response was designed to provide quick energy for five or ten minutes, enabling our forefathers to either do battle or run.

At the first sign of perceived danger, the human brain releases a substance known as, corticotropin-releasing-hormone, or CRH. CRH travels to the adrenal cortex and stimulates the release of the hormones adrenalin and cortisol.

Immediately after a perceived danger is recognized, eyesight and hearing improve, lung capacity jumps, and thinking become more focused. The digestive system is temporarily shut down, and blood is shunted from the internal organs for emergency use elsewhere. Heart rate and blood pressure climb, and due to increased cortisol levels, more stored fuel (fat and glucose) is mobilized for quick action. Although a tremendous asset for firefighters in any emergency, this flight or fight response is does come with a weighty price tag.

Insulin, the Fat Hormone

Production of insulin, the fat storage hormone, is also dramatically increased. Insulin overrides signals from adrenalin to burn fat, and instead, encourages the body to store fat (for future use) in the abdominal region. For a great Ab workout, click here

This life-saving, emergency response plan was appropriate to an era when the biggest concern was pure survival. Unfortunately, the human brain cannot distinguish between a valid physical threat and ordinary, day-to-day, also known as chronic stress.

Chronic Stress

As a firefighter, extremely stressful situations present themselves on an almost daily basis, but what about life's normal stress inducers? For example, as you sit in your car and stew over that wall of traffic in front of you, the argument you just had with your spouse, the bills you didn't pay, your brain senses the onset of a threatening situation and sets the flight or fight response into motion.

You recognize this as nervous tension or just plain anxiety. Your heart pounds, you want to jump out of your skin, but you can't respond. All that extra fuel (in the form of fat and glucose) that's designed to provide you with emergency energy (thankfully during a real emergency), is now being mobilized for action, but goes unused and left behind, only to be re-deposited as fat. And to make matters worse, usually belly-fat.

High cortisol levels are associated with increased appetite and increased fat deposits, typically around the trunk and abdomen. Some researches theorize that this unused fuel (or fat) is generally deposited in the abdominal area because of its proximity to the liver (where it can be quickly converted to a usable form of energy).

As part of the body's short-term protective measures, Cortisol acts like the adrenalin antidote. Upon removal of the stressful stimulus, adrenalin levels quickly dissipate, but cortisol levels remain high, causing insulin production to surge as well.

In the face of prolonged or chronic stress, cortisol levels can remain constantly high, keeping you in a state of perpetual hunger. We can easily see how elevated cortisol levels can promote weight gain due to an overabundance of insulin. Insulin resistance, which affects 25 per cent of all Americans, is also a major risk factor for Type II Diabetes and heart disease.

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