Can stress make you fat?
Stress. It makes you depressed. It makes you tired. It makes you snap at the people you love. Stress can make you drink the whole bottle of wine when you only meant to have a glass. But stress can also make you fat.
Scientists at the University of Liverpool found that women exposed to a range of mentally and physically stressful tasks ate 20 per cent more of the free chocolate they were offered, compared to when they didn’t have to do the tasks. 20 per cent more chocolate, expanding waistline … and seems like no-brainer.
But, evidence suggests that the stress-fat connection isn’t just down to those uncontrollable urges to eat a packet of cookies. It appears that the effects of stress can alter the way our bodies deal with food — tipping the balance towards storing rather than utilising — leaving us feeling devoid of energy, and surreptitiously undoing that top button.
Research at the University of California in San Francisco found that out of 160 women between 30 and 46 years old, those with the biggest waist measurements reported the highest levels of stress. Meanwhile, Dr Pamela Peeke, one of a team of researchers at the National Institutes of Health in America, has discovered that hormones secreted during times of stress are instrumental in causing more fat to be stored, particularly around the abdomen.
It works like this. A hormone called CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone) rises in response to stress. The increased level triggers a chain of events in the brain, including a release of cortisol and adrenalin (the ‘stress’ hormones), to help prepare the body for action. Cortisol stimulates the release of glucose to provide fuel for fight or flight while adrenalin primes the nervous system for action.
Once the crisis is over, adrenalin disperses, but cortisol — and the glucose it has drawn into the blood — lingers, causing a surge of insulin and stimulating the appetite to encourage the body to restore its fuel stores, to be ready to cope with the next confrontation.
Of course, these days, our confrontations tend to be not with hairy mammals but with angry bosses and aggressive pavement-riding cyclists. So although we rarely expend any energy in our stressful encounters, we still end up refuelling at the vending machine — because we’re hard-wired to do so. And to top it all, this excess body fat is stored ‘viscerally’, or deep within the abdomen, where it raises our risk of heart disease and diabetes.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and elastic waistbands. One of the most obvious ways to solve the problem is to reduce or eliminate stress by changing your lifestyle and learning coping strategies. A sensible approach — but frankly, easier said than done. So how about ‘reinstating’ the fight or flight response, by following stressful events and experiences with some physical activity, like we were born to do? Not only will this dissipate those stress hormones, it will also release beta-endorphins, making you feel calm and contented. And perhaps even more importantly, regular workouts will enable you to become more stress-resilient in the future.
The fitter you are, the lower the rise in cortisol under stressful conditions — a point proved in a study from Texas A&M University, which found that physically fit subjects were better able to cope with unexpected physical and mental challenges (like rope climbing and white-water rafting) than unfit subjects. While hurtling down the Zambezi might not be among your daily challenges, you should find that regular workouts help you deal with the sources of stress in your life more ably — as well as ensuring that not being able to squeeze into your skinny jeans isn’t one of them.