How Stress Makes You Fat

We’ve been hearing about it for years: if we’re stressed out, we’ll reach for the fatty, sugary foods and gain weight.  But why exactly does this happen?  How does stress, a far too common affliction, affect our bodies?

The Gene Connection

Researchers have recently isolated a gene that seems to be a stress/fat trigger.  In fact they’ve named it the “comfort-eating gene.”   When under stress, this gene pumps out a protein called Ucn3 which triggers our desire for comfort food and also seems to mess with our satiety.  So we’ll eat more of the bad stuff and still feel hungry.  Dr. Alon Chen of the Weizmann Institute in Israel is literally calling this the “smoking gun” tying metabolism to genes.

What Cortisol Does

When your body is under stress it produces more cortisol.  A system with too much cortisol responds to fat in two ways.  First, it breaks down fat so that energy is readily available for the body.  When your system is under stress we go back to our caveman days and think we’re about to be attacked by something.  Cortisol is one way our bodies ready us for fight or flight.   A whole cascade of events happen in the body; we actually breathe more deeply to oxygenate our blood supply and muscles and we even think more clearly (all the better to not make a wrong move under threat).  The body also temporarily suspends any hunger. Think back to when you were scared to death. Were you thinking about a Twinkie?  No, you were not.

However, when the stress alert subsides (think at home, after dinner in front of the TV after a long day at work) and you’re back to a normal routine. The cortisol stays in the system to help right the body’s chemistry.  It seems to trigger the hunger response so we can get back those calories we lost from being on “high alert” earlier in the day.  How many of you were now craving a Twinkie when you were sitting in front of the TV?

This cycle works well for real dangers like a bad guy in an alley or a lion on safari, but doesn’t work so well with the daily stress created by our society: long, arduous commutes, aggressive behavior from co-workers, etc.

How to De-Stress

We need to relax, to find ways to avoid or override the fight or flight response that is hardwired into our monkey brains.  Here are a few tips (you can also check out this article here)…

  1. Meditation. There are endless studies that show meditation significantly helps to fight daily stress.  It can be a large elaborate production with floor cushions and memorized chants or it can be a very simple process of breathing for a few minutes and being aware of just that moment.  The quick trick I learned a few years back was to count deep breaths up to 41.  (I no longer remember why 41 was relevant, but it’s harder than you think if you’re Type A like me.)
  2. Yoga / Pilates / Tai Chi. Any exercise on the mind/body spectrum is going to decrease stress.  Focusing on the movements of your body will actually push your to-do list right out of your head.  You won’t even remember it until you’ve moved on to your next thing, and you’ll be so calm you’ll have a much better perspective on what needs to be accomplished.
  3. Simple pleasures.  Do those little things that bring you peace.  Light a candle at dinner to make it special, take the time to read a book, go back to a hobby that you enjoyed but had put aside.  Find time to do the little things you love to help you find your version of peace.

I would love to hear your thoughts.  If anyone has any other tips for living stress free I’d love to hear them.