Imagine it’s the year 12,000 BC and you’re walking through a patch of woods making your way back home. Suddenly, you hear a low growl, a few thunderous footsteps, and an enormous man-eating saber-tooth tiger has just appeared before you. In an instant, sheer panic, terror, and stress overtakes your body. Your nervous system has gone into “fight or flight” mode, and you most certainly are choosing flight…and hoping to avoid squaring off with this thousand pound killing machine.
Now let’s fast forward about 14,000 years. You’re sitting in your office, minding your own business, when all of a sudden there’s a knock on your door (well upgrade you out of your cubicle for this hypothetical). Your boss is standing at the door he doesn’t look too happy. You’ve screwed up those damn TPS reports again, cost the company thousands of dollars in lost accounts, and are generally a terrible employee. He goes on to tell you layoffs are on the horizon and you’re not doing yourself any favors to stay below the radar. As he walks away, a sense of panic, stress, and hopeless begin to overtake you.
Fight or Flight
While these are two totally different scenarios, they both share something in common. Both situations bring about stress, which in turn causes your body to secrete the hormone cortisol from your adrenal cortex gland. Cortisol is considered the “stress hormone” and is related to many functions of the body. Cortisol helps regulate blood sugar (via insulin), it plays a direct role in liver functionality, and it even suppresses the immune system. Now, what does this have to do with weight gain? In a word; everything.
Cortisol directly impacts how and where your body stores fat, as well as the associated weight gain in chronically stressed individuals. The enzyme that converts the inactive form of cortisol to the active form, is found in fat cells. This enzyme is more regularly found in visceral fat (fat on your stomach and surrounding organs) than in subcutaneous fat. As we know, visceral fat is the worst kind to have due to its link with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. In simpler terms, the more stress you feel, the more need for the hormone cortisol. The more need for cortisol, the more enzymes found visceral fat cells you need to convert the inactive form of cortisol to the form ready for use by your body. This is why chronically stressed individuals often maintain an excess of body fat around their midsection.
If you recall, I mentioned the connection between cortisol and insulin earlier. Cortisol can become a double-whammy in that it can often increase insulin levels based on a number of physiological factors. The one-two punch of high cortisol levels AND high insulin levels will wreak havoc on your body. Insulin signals the body to store fat and not burn it. When insulin levels are high, your body wants to burn muscle for fuel instead of fat. Cortisol only promotes this as it too demands an energy source, and the insulin signals that energy source should come as muscle, not fat. It’s an endless cycle that needs to be broken if you want to stop the weight gain you’re experiencing.
Additionally, studies have shown that heightened levels of cortisol can cause a person to forgo nutrient-dense foods and opt for high sugar/high carb substitutes (1). A National Institute of Health study from 2001 seemed to indicate those individuals with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol were more likely to consume more calories than individuals with lower levels of cortisol. Further, individuals with higher levels of cortisol opted for sweeter foods on days when stress was particularly high. Obviously over time, eating in response to stress, especially eating bad calories, is a recipe for weight gain, fat accumulation, and decreased overall health.
Body Saving Hormones
The good news is, there are hormones in our body just waiting to be released that can counter the effects mentioned above. Particularly, HGH and testosterone are very effective at diminishing the effects cortisol has on our physiology. When HGH and testosterone levels are elevated, fat storage around our belly (which is brought about by heightened cortisol levels) is blocked. Further, high levels of HGH and testosterone can actually alter the impact of cortisol on your body, by enhancing its into a muscle-building, fat burning properties. Two studies, one from the October 1997 issue of Human-Reproduction and another from 2000, in an issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (Volume 85 # 2) demonstrate this powerful phenomenon.
So, how do we increase levels of HGH and testosterone? Aside from illegal performance enhancing drugs, the only ways to increase these hormones is through sleep, high-intensity exercise, and ample protein intake. This is why I so often preach the benefits of HIIT training, or recommend a whey protein shake after exercise. The benefits of working out hard and fueling your body appropriately extend far beyond burning a few extra calories or feeding your muscles with a little extra fuel. Many functions and chemical reactions in the body are related, albeit in a complicated manner. You don’t need to understand every minute detail about human physiology to get healthy and lean. The most important thing to do is exercise hard, forget the slow and steady cardio approach, feed yourself with ample protein sources, and get enough rest. These elements are the cornerstone to the fitness routine of practically every healthy, fit, and lean person out there.
Killing Stress Before It Kills You
As I mentioned above, cortisol also plays a role in suppressing the immune system. This is why you so often hear that stress can leave you susceptible to illness. Chalk this up as yet another consequence of chronic stress. It should be clear by now that eliminating as much stress from our lives as possible is a good idea. So, in today’s modern world, you may be wondering how this is possible. While we aren’t running for our lives from thousand pounds man-eaters anymore, we have mortgages, and kids, and school, and jobs we don’t like, and friends that annoy us, and a million other things that wear us down. The combination of all of these things is of course stressful. But chronic stress is going to kill us, albeit slowly, so we must find a way to eliminate the stress we feel. Everyone is different, but from personal experience, I would suggest exploring yoga, reading up on Buddhist philosophy, and doing more things that make you happy. I’ve always been a little prone to anxiety and stress, and I’ve found the combination of the above is what helps me deal with the pressures of our modern society.
While it’s always a work in progress, I’m beginning to understand and relate more to the idea of impermanence. Nothing is permanent, all things shall pass. Whether it’s a stressful situation, or a pleasant one, it will pass. When we are able to disconnect ourselves from associated emotional bonds to a given situation, we are better suited to free ourselves from stress that is brought upon when an unplesant situation occurs or a happy situation comes to an end. This is what works for me; it may not work for you. But I do encourage you to explore different avenues to alleviate your stress as it really is the invisible killer. Continuing to deal with stress as you have been (assuming you aren’t handling it well) isn’t going to change anything. You’ve got to do something different to end the cycle and get yourself on the path towards that healthy and lean body you’ve been after all these years.