Cellular Stress & Body Fat (especially belly fat)

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

Best Future YouHarnessing Your Body’s Biochemistry to Achieve Balance in Body, Mind, and Spirit

My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.

But before we go any further, you can discover some of the best natural ways to quickly lower stress and increase resilience here.

Chapter 8 – Perform Your Best

Phase 3 – Body Fat (especially belly fat)

That last section touched on a vitally important aspect of stress – that it can make you fat. Overexposure to any source of stress sets off a biochemical cascade throughout all parts of the body – right down to the cellular level. Neurological (brain) and endocrine (hormone) pathways are altered in response to stress, with that stress transmitted right down to the cellular and genetic level. Those alterations in nerve/hormone/genes lead to changes in our appetite (we crave more junk food) and in our ability to gain body fat (we burn less and store more, especially in the abdominal/belly region). Many people reading this book have experienced these changes in biochemistry firsthand – as our stress goes up, so does our waistline.

A primary focal point of this book is the close (and increasingly understood and acknowledged) relationship between cellular stress, the CDR pathways, and our overall metabolism. When we encounter stress and cortisol rises, it interferes with our cells ability to activate the CDR pathway – so we accumulate cellular damage and its associated problems. A key intermediary in the relationship between cellular stress, cortisol and weight gain is another hormone called insulin. Most people associate insulin problems with diabetes because of its primary role in regulating blood-sugar levels (although insulin has many additional functions in the body). Not only does insulin regulate blood-sugar levels within an extremely narrow range; it is also responsible for getting fat stored in our fat cells (adipose tissue), getting sugar stored in our liver and muscle cells (as glycogen), and getting amino acids directed toward protein synthesis (muscle building). Due to these varied actions, insulin is sometimes thought of as a “storage” hormone because it helps the body put all these great sources of energy “away” in their respective places for use later. That’s great, but it is exactly the opposite of what the body experiences during the stress response, when the heart and muscles need lots of energy and need it fast.

One of the first signals the body must send out during periods of stress is a message that screams, “No more energy storage!”—and that means shutting off the responsiveness of cells to the storage effects of insulin. When cells stop responding to insulin, they are able to switch from a storage (anabolic/building) mode to a secretion (catabolic/breakdown) mode—so fat cells dump more fat into the system, liver cells crank out more glucose, and muscle cells allow their protein to be broken down to supply amino acids (for conversion into even more sugar by the liver). This is all fine—assuming it occurs infrequently and for only a short period of time. Telling the body’s cells to ignore insulin on a regular basis, as happens with chronic cellular stress, can lead to a condition known as insulin resistance and predispose a person to the development of full-blown diabetes.

Stress makes a person fat primarily because of an excessive secretion of the key stress hormone, cortisol, along with a reduced secretion of key anabolic hormones, such as DHEA, testosterone, and growth hormone. This combination of highly catabolic cortisol and reduced anabolic hormones causes the body to store fat, lose muscle, slow metabolic rate, and increase appetite—all of which have the ultimate effect of making a person fatter. Overall, stress makes you burn fewer calories and consume more food (especially carbohydrates), which increases your stress levels even more! Even the thought of food and the concern about eating can increase stress levels—and therefore cortisol—in people who have restrained their eating habits and are either dieting or are concerned about their weight.

From a vanity standpoint, nobody wants to carry around more body fat than they need to. From a health and longevity standpoint, elevated cortisol levels and related cellular stress also tend to promote fat accumulation in the abdominal area, a condition that is closely associated with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Researchers are not completely sure why this “stress fat” accumulates specifically around the midsection. Its location here may have something to do with its being available for rapid access when the body needs additional fuel (because fat stored in the abdominal region can be delivered to the bloodstream and tissues faster then fat stored in peripheral regions such as the thighs and buttocks). But even though the reason for abdominal fat accumulation is still unclear, its consequences are well known. This combination of conditions, known as metabolic syndrome or syndrome X, has been identified by many experts as the most important health danger that we’ll face as a worldwide population in the early twenty-first century.

Most of us have grown fatter as we’ve grown older. It is interesting to note that several recent studies have demonstrated quite clearly that cortisol exposure and cellular damage increase with age, reducing our sensitivity to insulin, and elevating our risk for obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome X. Stressed-out subjects with an altered pattern of cortisol secretion are characterized by a low concentration of cortisol in the morning, the absence of a circadian rhythm, and a huge meal-related surge in cortisol levels—all of which are consistently associated with obesity and related measurements.

People with disrupted cortisol-secretion patterns have higher body fat (particularly in the abdomen), lower muscle mass (particularly in the arms and legs), and reduced basal metabolic rate (BMR, the number of calories burned at rest). On the other hand, lower levels of cellular stress are associated with a more “normal” pattern of cortisol metabolism (high in the morning, with a normal circadian rhythm) and with more favorable measures of body composition (more lean and less fat) as well as a healthier cardiovascular profile (lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol and blood sugar, and better insulin sensitivity).

All in all, the above scenario makes for very discouraging news: Stress makes us fat. Even worse, however, may be the findings from researchers that have determined that the stress of dieting can make us fat. Why is this especially bad news? Primarily because at any given moment in our Western society, as much as 50 to 60 percent of the population is actively dieting—and many millions more are at least concerned about what they eat. This makes dieting one of the most common cellular stress triggers, for both men and women—but why are so many people dieting? Aside from the obvious fact that few of us eat right or exercise enough, we also have to contend with mass-media messages equating thinness with beauty, success, and intelligence (and the implication that we can’t achieve those things unless we are thin).

Unfortunately, we also have to contend with the very real physiological changes that are occurring within each of us. As we age, cellular damage accumulates, our metabolic rate drops, and most of us begin to pack on the pounds. Adding fat in the abdominal area (in response to cellular stress) changes the body shape from that of an hourglass to more of a shot glass—and repeated diets only compound the problem.

Most of us will experience a drop in metabolism of about 0.5 percent per year after the age of twenty. Now, that may not seem like a large drop, but when you look at it over ten or twenty years, it means that we’re burning 5 percent fewer calories at age thirty and 10 percent fewer calories at age forty—and so it goes, with about 5 percent fewer calories burned for every ten years of age. Just imagine: By the time we turn fifty, we’re burning 15 percent fewer calories than we did when we were twenty. If you consume two thousand calories per day at age twenty (which is about average), this means you will need only seventeen hundred calories (three hundred fewer calories) at age fifty to maintain your body weight. It also means that if you don’t make some serious changes in your diet and exercise patterns, or at least get your cortisol levels under control, then your fifty-year-old body will be carrying around over thirty extra pounds of fat than when you were twenty!

Exercise and proper nutrition can certainly minimize our age-related drop in metabolism and increased tendency toward weight gain, but they can also help us control our response to cellular stress. The “right” program of diet and exercise will burn calories, shed fat, and relieve stress—but most people have enough experience with these “right” programs to know that diet and exercise have their own limitations. In fact, researchers at the University of Colorado have shown that athletes performing too much exercise (overtrained cross-country skiers) experience the very same adverse effects of elevated cortisol and cellular stress levels, such as mood disturbances, immune-system suppression, and increased levels of body fat. Of particular interest in this study was the finding that the athletes who were working out the most—those putting in the highest mileage and the longest training times—were also the ones with the highest cellular stress levels, the highest body fat levels, and the poorest scores on measures of emotional outlook (more depression). Basically, they were exercising their brains out to get in better shape, but their elevated cortisol levels were hampering, and indeed outright preventing, their progress.

So where does this leave us? In terms of “metabolic performance” for fat loss, we know quite clearly that cellular stress, dieting, and stress hormones such as cortisol are all detrimental to our overall goals of shedding excess body fat. We also know from decades of research that both exercise and good nutrition can be helpful in controlling stress, cortisol, body weight, and a whole host of related health parameters. Scientists at the University of Goteborg, in Sweden, have shown that high cortisol levels are associated with a high waist-to-hip ratio, excess abdominal fat, elevated insulin levels, and a reduced secretion of growth hormone and testosterone—but they have also shown that a 13–14 percent reduction in cortisol levels is associated with a weight loss of more than twelve pounds. This means that despite the gloom and doom caused by the link between stress, cortisol, and obesity, we have some hope that by controlling cortisol and cellular stress levels, we can make a positive impact on our body weight and level of body fat.

Thanks for reading – be sure to tune in for the next installment about “Phase 4 – Fitness (especially lean body mass)

Shawn M Talbott, PhD, CNS, LDN, FACSM, FAIS, FACN
Nutritional Biochemist and Author
801-915-1170 (mobile)


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The Secret of Vigor – How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy
Killer at Large – Why Obesity is America’s Greatest Threat – an award-winning documentary film exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic
The Cortisol Connection – Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House)
The Cortisol Connection Diet – The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House)
Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection – The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House)
Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living – Lasting Relief for Flexible Joints, Strong Bones and Ache-Free Muscles (Chronicle Publishers – Currant Books)
The Immune Miracle – The All-Natural Approach for Better Health, Increased Energy and Improved Mood (GLH Nutrition, 2012)
A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements – an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press)
About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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