Is Stress Making You Fat?

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.

The average caveman was well served by a system that signaled him to eat after every emergency, and where total energy expenditure was not uncommon. This short-term protective mechanism, although somewhat outdated, still works, but the act of going out and obtaining food burns only as few calories as it takes drive to the nearest supermarket or McDonald's (about one french fry).

The stress response is hardwired into the fabric of our lives. Ask the average emergency worker if he or she gets stressed out on a regular basis, and you'll most likely hear an emphatic, "Yes!" So if we can't eliminate stress, how can we combat the negative effects of the flight or fight response?

Exercise, Fat's Triple Threat

One of the most obvious ways to combat fat and the ravages of stress is with exercise. Exercise represents a triple threat to body fat. First, exercise burns calories and utilizes stored body fat as fuel. Second, working out increases the amount of lean muscle mass your body must provide with fuel on a 24 hour a day basis. More muscle means less fat.

Researchers from Yale University have now clearly demonstrated a third mechanism by which exercise reduces stores of body fat, especially around the belly. They've proven that moderate to vigorous exercise, such as lifting weights, can offset all the negative effects of cortisol and insulin.

With as little as ten minutes of strenuous exercise the brain begins to produce beta-endorphins that calm you down and decrease levels of the stress hormone. Many feel that strenuous exercise actually mimics a typical caveman-like physical reaction to a threat, and is the modern-day version of an appropriate reaction to the flight or fight response.

A note of caution

Don't overdo it. Too much exercise can actually cause additional stress and associated symptoms. Be sure to get plenty of rest. Inadequate sleep increases cortisol levels and reduces leptin, a hormone that signals fullness. Avoid dieting. High protein, low carb diets do not provide enough energy during stressful situations.

Common sense dictates that you eat right, get plenty of sleep, and exercise, but now we have another weapon in the battle of the bulge; stress management. Be sure to not ignore the signs of being overstressed, of which being over weight is just one symptom.

The Meditation Connection

Another victim of stress is the youth promoting hormone Dehydroepiandrosterone or DHEA. DHEA is a naturally occurring feel-good hormone that's been shown to decline under times of physical and emotional trauma, and may be another connection between stress and weight gain amongst firefighters.

Researches have found that DHEA levels can be easily elevated during the most tranquil of activities, meditation, as well as by exercise. In a similar fashion to the beta-endorphins that are released during vigorous activities, DHEA production increases during meditation. This process reduces blood cortisol levels and combats the negative effects of stress.

While you're not likely to see a meditation class at the local firehouse anytime soon, but you can recognize symptoms and do something about it. Whether through exercise or other types of stress management techniques such as psychotherapy, hypnosis, taking up a hobby, or just a simple meditation, you can take back control of your life.

Early Warning Signs of Stress

  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Tired but can't sleep, excessive fatigue
  • Speech difficulties, impatience
  • Headaches, repeated colds or flu
  • Nail biting, teeth grinding
  • Low or high blood sugar
  • Low or high blood pressure
  • High cholesterol or triglycerides
  • Ulcers and gastric disturbances
  • Chest pains, muscle aches
  • Lower back, shoulder, neck pain
  • Menstrual problems, hair loss
  • Forgetfulness, withdraw from social life

FDNY captain, Michael Stefano is the author of the Firefighter's Workout Book. Captain Mike also creates custom workouts for both firefighters and civilians alike. To learn more, visit his website at: