Tag Archives: stress hormones

Deepak Chopra: Weekly Health Tip — What’s So Bad About Belly Fat?



Visualization is courtesy of TheVisualMD.com



Brought to you by Deepak Chopra, MD,Alexander Tsiaras, and TheVisualMD.com

The list of health risks tied to being overweight or obese seems to increase every year—along with the nation’s waistline. While losing weight can be challenging, there are new, compelling reasons to try to shed those extra pounds—especially if they’re around your middle.

Scientists used to think that fat was a relatively passive substance: It was simply stored energy. But recent research suggests that fat cells are biologically active. They secrete dozens of hormones and other chemicals that affect nearly every organ system in the body. When your weight is normal, these hormones and chemicals keep you healthy: They dampen your appetite after a meal, burn stored fat, regulate insulin, and protect against diabetes, among other functions.

But if you are overweight, you have many more fat cells than a normal-weight person—and the cells are bigger. These super-sized fat cells release more hormones and chemicals than your body needs, especially if they constitute belly fat (also known as visceral fat). This flood of chemicals can take a toll on your health, increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even cancer.

Belly fat and disease Scientists are still learning how substances secreted by abdominal fat cells harm the body. Recent research shows that these cells produce proteins that can damage the body in different ways. One type of protein, a known precursor to angiotensin, constricts blood vessels, causing blood pressure to rise. Another protein called retinol-binding protein 4 (RBP4) increases insulin resistance, which can lead to clogged arteries and heart attack. Still other proteins can trigger low-level inflammation, which has been tied to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases such as cancer.  

Visceral fat has been linked to cancer in other ways, too. After menopause, the ovaries stop producing estrogen and fat tissue becomes the main source of this hormone. A woman who is obese has many extra fat cells that are busy churning out estrogen. All those extra hormones can fuel the growth of breast tumors. Both men and women with excessive belly fat also have an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Even the brain can be impacted by excessive abdominal fat. A 2005 study of older people linked larger bellies with declines in memory and language. Extra belly fat also carries an increased risk for dementia and asthma.

Direct line to the liver What makes belly fat so much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (the kind you can pinch with your fingers that’s on your hips and lower body). Scientists think that visceral fat produces greater amounts of harmful chemicals than subcutaneous fat. Visceral fat’s location makes it more dangerous, too. Visceral fat is deep in the abdomen where it surrounds critical organs, including the liver. Blood that circulates through visceral fat drains directly into the liver via the portal vein. Dangerous substances produced by visceral fat pour straight into the liver. One of these substances—free fatty acids—disrupts the liver’s production of fats and offsets the balance of LDL and HDL cholesterol. These fatty acids also increase the risk of fatty liver disease and hepatitis B.

Bye-bye belly How can you tell if you have too much visceral fat? If you have a lot of subcutaneous fat on your belly, the kind you can pinch, chances are good there is lots of visceral fat underneath. Belly fat increases with age, especially among women. Even if a woman’s weight doesn’t change as she reaches middle age, her proportion of body fat usually increases, and much of it ends up around the abdomen.

For both women and men, a tape measure is the best tool for assessing how much visceral fat you have. Measure your waist just above your hipbone without sucking in your stomach. If you’re an average-sized woman, a waist measurement of 35 inches or more is considered too much belly fat. For most men, a waist circumference greater than 40 inches is cause for concern.

The good news is that belly fat responds especially well to dieting and to aerobic exercise. That’s because visceral fat metabolizes into fatty acids more easily than subcutaneous fat. There’s more good news: Once you start to lose belly fat, many of the harmful effects of those extra fat cells can be reversed, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Eat less, but eat wellTo lose weight, you do need to reduce the amount of calories you take in, but don’t make too dramatic a reduction. It will slow down your metabolism and make it harder to lose weight. Instead, decrease portion sizes and make healthy food choices: Eat lots fresh vegetables and fruits along with lean protein. Check food labels and avoid trans fats and saturated fats, choosing polyunsaturated fats instead. Eat whole grains as much as possible and avoid refined-grain pasta and white bread. Also limit your intake of processed foods and sugary drinks. Women should be sure to intake plenty of calcium. One study showed that the more calcium women consumed, the less visceral fat they gained.

Make exercise a habit Exercise is also critical if you want to shed belly fat. Do some form of aerobic exercise—fast walking, jogging, biking, or an aerobic exercise class—for at least 30 minutes a day. You don’t have to do an intense workout if you reduce your calorie intake, too. A 2009 study found that belly fat responded just as well to moderate exercise as intense exercise if calorie consumption was reduced. Find ways to work exercise into your daily life, too. Take stairs instead of taking an elevator or park a few blocks from your destination and walk. Exercising with weights can also help take off belly fat by adding muscle, which increases your metabolism.

If you smoke, quit. In addition to all the other health risks, smoking causes you to store more fat in your belly. And try to reduce the amount of stress in your life. The stress hormone cortisol is associated with visceral fat increase, even in women who are not overweight.

Last but not least, get the right amount of sleep. A five-year study showed that adults who slept less than five hours a night or more than eight hours gained more visceral fat.


Learn more about visceral fat and fat distribution:

TheVisualMD.com: Measuring Fat


What’s True, and Not, About Stress

This is one of those posts where it’s tempting to add "keep reading" to the title. Stress is the gray little monster in the corner that keeps out of sight. Everyone promises themselves to reduce the stress in their lives, yet "I’m stressed out" is said every day, and the pressures of modern life mount. Banks undergo stress tests, as do our hearts when the doctor wants to test for cardiac disease. What more is there to say about a subject that has become so well worn?

Actually, it’s worthwhile to go back and revisit the basic facts about stress, and then to look at the deeper, more mysterious issues that are involved, some of which lead us into unexpected territory.  The term stress was coined by the Hungarian researcher Hans Selye, who injected irritating substances into mice and discovered, to his surprise, that all of them produced the same symptoms (swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus gland, gastric and duodenal ulcers). Selye observed that sick patients with various illnesses exhibited much the same symptoms.

It was due to Selye’s medical approach that stress is seen as a physical response rooted in the endocrine system. In fact, the term "stress hormones" is still applied, and blood levels of cortisol are a key indicator of someone being under stress. In the grand scheme, stress hormones were incredibly useful ways to explain such diverse things as battle fatigue, the fight-or-flight response, and the death of salmon after they swim upstream to spawn. People were taught to think of stress as being the equivalent of pressure being put on the body, which then gets stressed out.

In this scheme, more pressure equals more stress, less pressure equals less stress. Therefore, it must be good to live with less pressure. However, the picture isn’t nearly so simple. Selye recognized two types of stress. The first, which he called distress, occurs from bad events like being in battle or losing your job. The second, which he called eustress, occurs from happy events, such as a surprise birthday party or going on vacation – the latter is considered one of everyday life’s biggest stressors, even though the purpose of a vacation is supposedly to relax. The body reacts the same to eustress and distress so far as raising its levels of stress hormones, and this poses a dilemma.

Human beings are not jellyfish, passively floating through a uniform medium like the ocean. We live in a constantly changing environment, to which the body responds by going out of balance and then back into balance. Its natural set point is balanced, and the complex way that this balance is maintained – known as homeostasis – crosses all boundaries. A physical event can throw the body out of balance, but so can a mental event. Thus being afraid that you might lose your job is just as stressful as actually losing it.

If everything is potentially a stress, and if the body is so well adapted to restoring balance, then the concept of stress becomes vague and perhaps useless. There are people who claim to thrive on pressure. Is this possible or are they ignoring signs of stress that will catch up with them one day? Is running a marathon, which puts enormous stress on the body physically, a hidden health risk despite the satisfaction gained by the runner? A hundred similar questions can be asked, and the medical answer, though very complex and detailed, amounts to a shrug of the shoulders. To understand stress completely, one would have to understand the whole of life, it seems.

What if we step outside the medical model, or better yet, incorporate it into a larger perspective? That is what the world’s wisdom traditions have done, without using our modern terminology.  Contrary to popular belief, which would label spirituality as other-worldly, the purpose of wisdom is to adapt better to this world.  The same issues that lead to stress in the modern world – how to be happy, how to calm the restless mind, how to escape nervous anxiety, and so on – confronted human beings at the time of Buddha and Christ. So let’s step back and rethink stress in spiritual terms first rather than setting the soul aside as something to pay attention to much further down the road.

Here I must speak very generally. In spirituality of every kind, the nonphysical domain contains our source. We are the products of consciousness, whether you call it the mind of God or universal Brahman. This consciousness was responsible for creating the body and mind we experience every day. The good life therefore depends upon the following:

1. Being at peace with yourself.

2. Connecting to your source in consciousness.

3. Growing in self-awareness.

4. Feeling loved and worthy.

5. Experiencing the presence of God or the soul.

People struggle simply to attain the first thing on this list, and yet much more is implied by the other items. An entire world view is based on which allegiance you hold, to the physical first and foremost or to the spiritual first and foremost. This isn’t an intellectual or emotional decision made according to various beliefs. It is a conception of reality itself. In our time, which is dominated by materialism, stress is the enemy that impairs health. In the spiritual world view, stress is the distraction that keeps you from knowing God or the soul.

The two sound radically different, and they are. But again speaking in vast generalities, the body is crucial in both cases. Homeostasis, the body’s ability to balance itself, has both a gross level and a subtle level. The gross level is needed for physical survival. When you run a mile and raise your blood pressure and heart rate, it’s vital for these to come back down again or you will die.  The subtle level of homeostasis is far more mystifying. But we might say that true balance is a state of clear, calm self-awareness in which you return to the higher self. Thus a moment of excitement that throws your awareness out of balance, whether for pleasure or pain, shouldn’t be sustained, because if you lose the connection with your soul, your true self, life will be harmed.

Stress, it turns out, does spiritual damage before it does physical damage. Selye didn’t talk in those terms, naturally, but quickly upon the spread of his research findings in the Sixties and Seventies, it was widely reported that meditation reduces stress. That’s not a casual observation. Meditation’s ability to reduce blood pressure, for example, is secondary to the fact that the whole person is being rebalanced, not just the body. Yet the body is crucial in the process. No more profound finding has emerged in modern spirituality. One famous guru was asked what was necessary in order to reach enlightenment, and he replied, "Relax."

Behind this simple and seemingly frivolous answer lies a wealth of knowledge about health, wisdom, well-being, and the purpose of life. In the next post I’d like to explore those avenues. Stress will be our constant companion, the little gray monster trying to be overlooked, until we root out its effects as deeply as possible.


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Weekly Health Tip: Stress and the Brain





The human body responds to stress with a powerful fight-or-flight reaction. Hormones surge through the body, causing the heart to pump faster and sending extra supplies of energy into the bloodstream. For much of human history, this emergency response system was useful: It enabled people to survive immediate physical threats like an attack from a wild animal. But today, the stress in most people’s lives comes from the more psychological and seemingly endless pressures of modern life. Daily challenges like a long commute or a difficult boss can turn on the stress hormones—and because these conditions don’t go away, the hormones don’t shut off.  Instead of helping you survive, this kind of stress response can actually make you sick.  


Chronic stress can harm the body in several ways. The stress hormone cortisol, for instance, has been linked to an increase in fat around organs, known as visceral fat. The accumulation of visceral fat is dangerous since these fat cells actively secrete hormones that can disrupt the functioning of the liver, pancreas and brain, causing problems such as insulin resistanceinflammation, and metabolic syndromeChronic exposure to other stress hormones can also weaken the immune system and even change the structure of chromosomes. 


How Stress Affects the Brain Recent research suggests that chronic stress takes a toll on the brain, too. Studies on mice show that stress-related hormones alter physical structures in the brain in ways that could affect memory, learning, and mood. Some of these changes involve dendrites, tiny branch-like structures on nerve cells that send and receive signals. Several studies have shown that stress hormones can shrink dendrites and as a result, information doesn’t get relayed across nerve cells. When the cell damage occurs in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, it can impact memory and learning. 


If stress makes you feel anxious, damage to dendrites might be part of the cause. A 2011 study found that rats whose dendrites had eroded due to stress had higher levels of anxiety. More research is needed to determine the exact effect of stress hormones on people’s brains, but one study of adults with post-traumatic stress disorder suggests that the stress hormone cortisol may actually shrink the size of the hippocampus. Researchers are still trying to determine if this is because of the hormone’s toxic effect on neurons or if there is a genetic component—or if both are involved.  


Another part of the brain that seems to be affected by stress is the amygdala—the part of the brain that regulates fear and other emotions. A 2003 study found that in mice under stress, the amygdala grew larger while the dendrites in the hippocampus shrank. Researchers believe that together, these two effects may cause an increase in anxiety. They think that as amygdala grows in size, you may experience more anxiety and fear. (The amygdala is known to become bigger and more active in people who are depressed.) But because the hippocampus cells involved in memory are shrinking and not transmitting information effectively, you can’t connect the feelings of fear to memories of real events. You’re left with a lot of generalized anxiety.  


Tips on Coping With Stress If this news about stress and the brain is giving you a headache—or stressing you out in other ways—relax. The good news is that you can learn healthy ways to cope with stress that will protect your brain—and the rest of your body—from stress’s negative effects.  

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to stress. Genetics play a role in how a person’s body reacts. Your past experiences can affect your response, too. If you lived through a lot of stressful situations growing up, you may be more sensitive to stress as an adult. Try to notice your own reactions to stress. Do you stay calm when pressures mount, or can you feel your pulse increase just thinking about a stressful situation? Once you become aware of what sets off your body’s fight or flight response, you can use these tips to try to change your response to stress. 


1. Resolve the stressful situation if you can. You may not have much control over many of the sources of stress in your life, but if there is a something you can do to resolve a stressful situation, do it! Talk to friends about what you can do to change a bad situation, and consider getting help from a conflict resolution expert if necessary.    


2. Spend time with loved ones and cultivate healthy friendships. Research shows that a good social support network has definite mental health benefits. It can keep you from feeling lonely, isolated, or inadequate and if you feel good about yourself, you can deal with stress better. Friends and loved ones can be a good source of advice and suggest new ways of handling problems. But they can also be an excellent distraction from what’s bothering you. If your network of friends is small, think about volunteering, joining an outdoor activities group, or trying an online meet-up group to make new friends. 


3. Do an activity you like. Part of being stressed out is feeling that you never have enough time. So adding more activities to your schedule might seem like the last thing you need. But if you make even a little bit of time for an activity you really enjoy, the payoff can be huge: You feel calmer and happier and can deal with work and other demands better. Whether it’s playing music, doing a craft, or working on your car, do something that absorbs and relaxes you. 


4. Try relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, and tai chi can help slow your breathing and heart rate and focus your mind inward, away from whatever is causing you stress. 


5. Exercise regularly. Whether it’s walking outside with a friend or taking an exercise class at the gym, getting active can help you relax and help turn off your body’s stress response. 


6. Get plenty of sleepWhen you’re well rested, you can approach stressful situations more calmly. 


7. Eat a healthy diet. Stress is tough enough on your body, so help it out by feeding it fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat protein


8. Appreciate what’s good in your life. It sounds corny, but focusing your thoughts on positive parts of your life instead of the stress-ridden areas can be good for your physical health. Research shows that positive emotions helped people recover their normal heart rate more quickly after it was raised during exertion. 


9. Laugh! Researchers are still investigating the precise effects of laughter on stress hormones, but some findings suggest that it has a stress-relief effect on heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension. Your own research has probably convinced you that laughing makes you feel better. 


10. Seek professional counseling if necessary.  Extreme chronic stress is no laughing matter. Enlist the help of a professional if you think you are at risk for serious health effects.  


Learn more about stress and stress management 




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Weekly Health Tip: Manage Your Stress to Protect Your Health


Brought to you by Deepak Chopra, MD, Alexander Tsiaras, and TheVisualMD.com

The consequences of allowing stress to rule our life are not only emotional. Physical structures throughout the human body take a beating. Tiny spines on the dendrites of nerve cells are worn away by the effects of stress hormones. Stress also affects the immune response and is associated with increased fat around the organs, which is a serious health risk. A zone at the tail-end of each chromosome, called a telomere, unravels as we age. In recent years, scientists have found that when we are under stress, telomeres come apart more quickly. To see more visual evidence of how stress affects your health TheVisualMD.com: Manage Your Stress

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Stress Raises Breast Cancer Risk

If you’ve had an especially stressful life event lately, you may be at increased risk for breast cancer. When a team of researchers from Ben-Gurion University compared 225 women younger than 45 years of age who had breast cancer to 367 healthy women of comparable age, they discovered that two or more “severe life events” increased the risk of breast cancer by 62 percent. Dr. Ronit Peled, head of the study, described losing a parent, close relative, or spouse; or divorce of parents before age 20, as “severe life events.”

Other researchers have also found a link between stressful life events and increased risk for the recurrence of breast cancer. For example in a study of 94 patients with breast cancer, those who experienced a traumatic event remained cancer-free an average of 30 months; those who had less stressful life events were cancer-free for 37 months; and those without a severe or moderate stressful life event were cancer-free for 60 months.
Stress Hormones and Breast Cancer
Ongoing stress can threaten breast-health, in large part, because it disrupts the natural daily natural rhythm of circulating hormones. For instance, one hormone that rises with stress is cortisol, which has been directly linked to breast cancer. Cortisol has a daily rhythm that reaches its lowest level during sleep, it climbs to its highest level by late morning, and then subsides in the afternoon. But when you experience ongoing stress—especially high-pitched, trauma-based stress—the natural ebb and flow of circulating cortisol loses its rhythm and instead, remains elevated. In turn, chronic levels of elevated cortisol weaken the ability of your immune system to fight disease, including not only breast cancer, but also high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose (linked with increased risk of weight gain and diabetes), and osteoarthritis.
Breast-Smart Strategies
Reducing stress will reduce your risk for breast cancer occurrence and recurrence. Some strategies:
·         Find someone who is empathetic and compassionate to talk to about stressful situations;
·         Try meditation, yoga, or tai chi to calm the mind and immune system, which will bring your hormones into a better rhythm;
·         When you are under stress your body creates more blood glucose, which provides an ideal environment for some types of cancer cells to flourish. One solution is to reduce or eliminate simple carbohydrates, such as white flour and sugar, and instead, make calories count with lots of nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Still another breast-smart strategy is to burn up extra glucose and body fat with aerobic exercise and other forms of physical activity. Each of these solutions will not only reduce your risk for breast cancer, they will make life a lot more enjoyable.
Deborah Kesten, MPH, is a nutrition and lifestyle researcher, lecturer, and author, with a specialty in preventing and reversing overweight and heart disease through lifestyle changes. The author of The Enlightened Diet, The Healing Secrets of Food, and Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul, she also writes about food and mood and the spiritual “ingredients” in food. Visit her at www.Enlightened-Diet.com to learn more about her Whole Person Nutrition Program for wellness, weight loss, and heart-health; and her coaching programs and books.
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