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Published: Monday, 6/22/2009

Fight or flight and eat? Stress can contribute to weight gain

BY DR. KALEEM GILL
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

Each month physicians from ProMedica and Mercy Health Partners will write columns about weight loss and fitness.

When trying to lose weight, we need to consider the reasons we gain - and retain - weight in the first place. One of the most common factors contributing to weight gain and obesity is stress.

Simply put, stress is your body's response to any demand or challenge. Causes of stress can be physical, such as the threat of bodily harm, or emotional, such as the threat of losing your job.

So what does stress do to your body?

Short-term stress is the body's immediate reaction to a demanding or dangerous situation. Reactions to short-term stress include accelerated heart beat, sweating, and faster breathing.

Experiencing stress over prolonged periods of time can lead to significant impacts on your health. It can put a strain on your immune system, which makes you more likely to get sick, and when you are sick, it can make the symptoms much more severe. Stress is also linked to high blood pressure, blood clots, heart failure, and low fertility.

According to the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of respondents in a 2008 study admitted to overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress during the previous month. But it's not always our fault; eating is the body's natural reaction to stress dating back to prehistoric times.

Back then, stress was about survival. For example, after seeing a tiger, a caveman would prepare to either fight the animal or flee (the "fight or flight" response). At this moment, the body releases two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline provides energy, which helps the caveman either fight the tiger or run away. Then, after the danger (or stress) passes, the cortisol hormone kicks in to make the caveman eat, so that he replenishes the calories he just burned during his run-in with the tiger.

Now in modern times, the body works the same, but the tiger has been replaced with - for example - a difficult coworker. Run-ins with the coworker make your heart pound faster, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rise. Afterward, with cortisol coursing through your veins, your body demands food to replenish the fuels you used while running from the predator. Only you weren't running, you were sitting at a desk.

So now you're hungry. To make matters worse, the body doesn't crave fresh vegetables or lean protein when stressed out. It craves simple carbohydrates and sugars that are quickly converted to energy, which is why that brownie or chocolate bar looks so appealing.

Cortisol has been called the "stress hormone" because it's secreted by your adrenal glands in excess during times of physical or psychological stress.

Not only will increased cortisol often promote weight gain (because it makes you eat), but it will also trigger your body to store fat in your abdomen, where cortisol "receptors" are located. Fat storage is your body's prehistoric way of preparing for the worst - a famine, perhaps, or long periods without food (remember, the caveman had to hunt and wasn't always successful).

"Unfortunately, cortisol causes belly fat, which has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers," says Dr. Paul DeLamater of the Endocrine & Diabetes Care Center, Inc. "That is why it's so important to find ways to alleviate your stress."

In today's fast-paced society, stressful events come at us fast and furious. Stress at work is followed by a traffic jam, bickering children, and no plans for dinner (which leads to a fast food restaurant, which leads to weight gain, which causes more stress).

Stress management techniques will trigger the body's natural "relaxation response" and help stop the changes your body experiences when stressed - decreasing the cortisol levels in your body and lessening your appetite.

Healing Care, a program offered by ProMedica Cancer Institute, helps cancer patients manage the stress of their diagnosis. Healing Care offers classes such as tai chi, yoga, art classes, and individualized sessions to complement traditional oncology treatments. But the program's relaxation techniques can be applied to anyone.

"The first thing we teach our patients is to be aware of how you feel and know that you're in control, even when you're feeling stressed out," says Deb Reis, CNP, program coordinator for Healing Care. "Focusing on your breathing can distract you from a stressful situation. Repetitive, deep breaths inhaled through the nose and exhaled through the mouth will make you feel relaxed and energized."

For everyday relief from stress and to help fight weight gain, here are some suggestions:

•Satisfy your appetite with healthier alternatives. If you're feeling the need to munch when stressed, reach for a healthy snack with a crunch - like carrot sticks - to relieve your tension, or a banana to satisfy your sugar craving.

• Fit exercise into your everyday routine. Exercise not only helps control weight gain, but it can act as a distraction from stressful situations and an outlet for frustrations. Forgo the elevator and take the stairs, participate in active playtime with the kids, or take your dog for a walk after work. Simply moving more will strengthen muscles and improve cardiac functions.

•Develop supportive relationships. People with a supportive social circle not only have more fun, but they enjoy healthier, less stressful lives. Make the effort to create new friendships and nurture those you already have.

Dr. Kaleem Gill is a board-certified family medicine physician and member of ProMedica Physician Group. He practices at Bay Park Community Hospital.

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Relax!

Tips for reducing stress:

• Breathing exercises

• Exercise

• Journaling

• Listening to music

• Meditation



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