Does Stress Make You Fat? (Does Fat Make You Stressed?)
Stress...fat...an endless cycle? It may be a classic catch-22, but how do we put the kibosh on the whole thing?
Americans: smart and industrious, democratic and free — and unfortunately, anxiety-riddled and overweight. And these two things go together like peanut butter and jelly (on Wonder bread). Researchers have known for over a decade that there’s a connection between chronic stress, fat and obesity. But new studies have identified the exact chain of molecular events that links the two conditions, according to reports in the July 1, 2007, online version of Nature Medicine.
The Stress-Fat Connection
Stress is like a steroid for fat cells. When the body is stressed, one of the substances it releases is a molecule that causes heart rate and blood pressure to increase, along with a number of other physiological reactions. One other thing this molecule does is to unlock certain receptors in fat cells, allowing them to grow bigger than normal and also to multiply.
Scientists at Georgetown University have found a connection between stress, a high-calorie diet, and extreme weight gain. These scientists tested two groups of mice — a stressed group and a non-stressed group. Each group was fed normal diets and high-fat and high-sugar (“comfort food”) diets. The stressed mice on the high-fat and high-sugar diet gained twice as much fat as unstressed mice on the same diet. The stressed animals used and stored fat differently than the non-stressed ones.
The researchers then experimented with blocking these specific fat-cell receptors or removing this receptor’s gene from the abdominal fat cells. When they did this, the stressed mice on high-fat, high-sugar diets did not become obese. In addition to not getting as fat, they also did not suffer the metabolic changes linked to stress and diet, including glucose intolerance (prediabetes, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.) and fatty liver — an accumulation of fat in the liver that is often associated with obesity and diabetes. The lead author of the published report called the effect of breaking this chain of molecular events “remarkable.”
While the researchers talked about the ways in which these findings can be used by pharmaceutical companies to create drugs that interfere with these receptors, thereby reducing fat cells, it might be wiser to simply put some extra time and energy into addressing our culture’s stress epidemic. We’re always on the lookout for that magic pill that will mean we don’t have to do the heavy lifting — that is, we won’t have to change our unhealthy ways. Change is hard, but change can be good.
What are the best ways to manage and relieve stress? You’ve no doubt seen countless articles on relaxation techniques, exercise, yoga, and the like. Stress relief is big business in our stressed-out country, so you can find books, videos, websites, gadgets, and services galore that claim to melt away stress and anxiety. But what really works? Scientists want the answer to that question and have begun to study in earnest methods for relieving stress. .