A lot of research has been done to link stress to obesity and diabetes. The best we can say is that even if stress does not cause type 2 diabetes, it sure makes it worse, and it definitely causes weight gain.
Whenever you encounter stress, whether that stress is mental, emotional, or physical, your body springs into action.
So cortisone and glucagon broke down glycogen, and the catecholamines broke down fat. You now have a steady stream of energy for your “fight or flight” situation. Without this reserve, you’d be a sitting duck.
These are processes that the human body has perfected. We respond to stress today the same way we did 20,000 years ago. Back then, the increased stress came from increased physical effort – the stress of running from a predator or hunting for your dinner. A great modern day example of stress hormones doing their job properly is exercise. However, for the most part nowadays, stress is no longer followed by extreme physical effort.
That is the biggest problem with modern day stress. Stress hormones only become a problem when crisis, fatigue, and overwork hit you day in and day out. That’s when stress starts to cause weight gain.
Instead of fighting a wild boar like you might have 10,000 years ago, you’re now faced with your boss shouting at you. Your boss’s angry facial expression, body movements, and loud voice trigger the same anxiety and terror that seeing the saber-toothed tiger once did. Instantly, your body generates enough cortisone and adrenaline to take a life-threatening situation head on, but without the increased physical effort that should balance them.
And that’s the problem with stress causing weight gain. Fixing an order with your biggest client will never match the physical strain of defending your children from a wild boar that just jumped into your cave.
Your body has only one response to danger. It automatically preps you for the worst-case scenario, but it becomes confused after going into a fight-or-flight mode with no need for physical activity.
That’s the problem with modern day stress. Stress hormones are designed to meet extremely physically demanding tasks where the stakes are life or death. They’re not designed to go off every time your boss takes out his marital problems on you. Your body prepped you for the worst the moment your boss opened up with “Oh My God! Why the HELL does page seven begin with…” As far as your hypothalamus was concerned, he was about to eat your firstborn.
Your brain is working furiously, but not your body. And the first time you confuse your body like this, it forgives you. And the next time you need it, it will be right there with adrenaline and cortisone faster than you can say “you’re fired.”
But after a while, your body starts to see that you’re crying wolf. It becomes conditioned to what it sees as your overreaction. Over-stimulated from the constant bombardment by stress hormones, the body starts to ignore their orders.
Here is where fat gain starts. The body begins to tell fat cells to ignore the order from adrenaline about releasing fat for energy. It understands that you’re not going to perform any major physical exertion, regardless of the alarms going off. When this blunting of fat release from adrenaline takes place, we say that your body has developed adrenaline resistance.
This is a major problem for anybody trying to lose fat. Adrenaline resistance means fat-loss resistance because adrenaline is literally the nudge on fat cells to release stored fat for fuel.
The problem is threefold.
Overweight people and type 2 diabetics already have adrenaline resistance. In fact, they can be ten times less sensitive to the beta-2 adrenaline receptor than individuals of normal weight. Fortunately, the more weight you lose, the less adrenaline resistant you may become. Besides diabetics and the obese, anyone under severe stress from too much work, too little sleep, or an anxiety disorder is at risk for adrenaline resistance. The same is true for those with addictions to nicotine, amphetamines, caffeine, or alcohol. The ultimate risk is fat gain, mind-numbing fatigue, and high blood sugar.
When it comes to gaining weight because of stress, adrenaline resistance is only one of two devils. Remember all that cortisone your body released when your boss jumped into your office with his sharp teeth exposed and chest puffed out? It stayed in your system long after the stress was over. It might still be circulating throughout your body for three or four more days. At that point, the initial stress may have ended, but cortisone’s ability to wreak havoc on your body is far from finished.
When cortisone comes into contact with fat cells, particularly visceral fat, it sends a message that is the exact opposite of adrenaline – store fat. Visceral fat has four times more cortisone receptors than all other fat cells. That means that these cells are receiving four times as many messages to store fat when the body is stressed. High cortisone levels also increase insulin resistance. This is a major way stress contributes to obesity and diabetes.
Cortisone is particularly damaging when you eat unhealthily. In a study done by Dr. John Yudkin, author of Sweet and Dangerous, healthy individuals who were fed a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar – the diet you would follow if you were trying to get fat with type 2 diabetes – had elevated insulin levels and serum cortisone levels that were 300% to 400% higher than normal within two weeks. These were healthy people with normal blood sugar, under no significant stress. Their insulin levels spiked significantly, as did their cortisone levels, due to the consumption of highly processed foods. Imagine then how much fat you’re putting on by eating that food when you are stressed. So if you’ve noticed weight gain in the belly when under stress, you’ve found its creator – chronically high cortisone levels and insulin resistance.
The above excerpt was adapted from my book, The New Diabetes Prescription.
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