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Is Stress Making You Fat?

February 26, 2004, Vol. II Issue 5

Dear Friends,

Since publishing my last issue, I’ve had the opportunity to attend two health heart events in my community. At both events, I was amazed at how much I learned. I don’t know if it’s just because my ears are open a little wider, or the speakers did a great job of delivering the information or some combination of both factors. What I do know is that I heard, loud and clear, that heart disease is highly preventable and that stress plays a huge and under-rated role as a risk factor in heart disease.

And, at the same time, the relationship really clicked when I was reading a chapter in Create the Body Your Soul Desires, by Drs. Karen Wolfe and Deborah Kern. I happened to be in the chapter about energy, and was fascinated about what they had to say about stress and weight gain, and how and why those darn unwelcome fat cells gravitate to the waist and hips, and are ultimately associated with heart disease and other maladies.

Good stuff to know, read on!

Yours truly,

All Stressed Up? Your Heart May Be Ready to Go

OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University) here in Portland, Oregon, sponsors a wonderful Speaking of Women Brown Bag Discussion Series withtheir physicians and other experts as speakers. They hold them at Nordstrom downtown. Isn’t that a great idea? “Forcing” women to walk though Nordstrom to get their health info? I love it! So does Nordstrom, according to Wendy Mitchell, Manager of the Center for Women’s Health, who arranges the events with Nordstrom. It works for both partners. Every one I’ve attended this year has been a full house (and I, as a result, have a new pair of shoes!).

This month, Rob Greenfield, MD, FACC discussed cardiovascular protection for women. He had a really cool moving graphic that showed exactly how cholesterol builds up in the arteries and eventually “explodes” through the walls causing the blockage. Cholesterol actually came alive for me and meant something besides numbers. And I really got it that HDL, the good one, has an active affect on lowering the bad LDL. I also really got that if we wait till we have symptoms of heart disease, we’re in trouble. That’s more job security for each one of us in the business of helping people embrace healthier lifestyle habits!

Later in the week, I attended Legacy Heart Institute’s annual February event where the speaker was Joe Piscatella, president of the Institute for Fitness & Health and author of numerous widely-acclaimed guides to healthy lifestyles, among them, Don’t Eat Your Heart Out, and his newest book, Take a Load Off Your Heart. I had always heard good things about his programs so I was delighted to get a firsthand experience (and I highly recommend him. Let me know if you’re interested).

On this Saturday morning, he had a full two hours so we got tons of information, again emphasizing the important difference that lifestyle changes can make in preventing heart disease. I was delighted that my sweetie went along with me. And I’m even more delighted that he paid attention, and tells me now he’s watching his fat and sugar intake more closely (You know how that goes. It was one thing for him to hear it from me, another to hear it from the authority). “Whatever it takes,” as Jana Stanfield’s song says!

Joe emphasized that stress management, not stress reduction, is the issue, as stress is a fact of life and has actual benefits (more about the built-in stress-response system in the next article). He said we tend to talk about diet and exercise, in terms of healthy lifestyles, but he called that a two-legged stool. The third leg is stress management. It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do, he said. What gets in the way of implementing healthy lifestyle habits is stress (read being out of time).

“Americans no longer cook, they re-heat,” he said. “We don’t cook dinner, we assemble it,” noting that Safeway stores in California have drive-up windows.

While these were very different events, I learned a great deal from both of them. Oh, and I also got to sign a “Go Red for Women” pledge and put my name on a red dress sticker at the Legacy event. I’m official now!


I don’t know about you, but I can tell the minute I’m gaining weight and I don’t need a scale. My jeans will do just fine. The bulge shows up right around the middle. Lo and behold, I’m reading Create the Body Your Soul Desires, by Drs. Karen Wolfe and Deborah Kern, and they talk about this phenomenon! Turns out it’s not such a phenomenon. It has perfectly explainable origins! And it was something both Dr. Greenfield and Joe Piscatella talked about, so my awareness kicked in. They’re all emphasizing that stress in itself is neither good nor bad.

In the book, Drs. Wolfe and Kern say, “We come into this world wired with a built-in stress-response mechanism and stress hormones make fuel and energy available so our bodies can respond to [perceived physical] challenges. The problem today is that stress has evolved to chronic stress with a dangerous and even life-threatening effect on the body because it never allows the body to switch off the stress response. People go from one episode to another. Chronic stress literally depletes your body, making you more vulnerable to colds, fatigue, and infections.”

And . . . fat storage around the middle. This is not just in your head (or stomach!). Research shows that chronic stress can give you an uncontrollable appetite. Excerpted from the book, with permission, here’s how it works:

“When the stress response is activated (usually by some threat to well being or safety), the levels of the two stress hormones, adrenaline andcortisol, rise in your body. Together they tell the body to release sugar and fat into the bloodstream for a surge of energy. The sugar (or glucose) and fat come into the muscles and/or the liver, where they are stored waiting to be used.

“When the stress is over, the body’s fuel level requires restoration. Cortisol stimulates your appetite for carbohydrates and fat to replenish the calories used up in the stress response and to prepare for the next stress episode. (Have you noticed how you crave chocolate and not broccoli when under stress?) When the stress response is activated on a constant basis, this cortisol-appetite response stays elevated and can lead to weight gain.

“When the body refuels, it stores excess calories as fat around the midline. Why around the midline? Because the liver is located there, and it is in the liver where the fatty acids are converted into fuel. The fat cells in the waist grow the largest because they can be calledupon most easily by the liver for the next stressful event. The closer the fat is stored to the liver, the more quickly it can be delivered to the liver to be converted into fuel (energy).

“The fat surrounding your internal organs in the abdomen is often referred to as ‘Stress Fat.’ When there is too much of it, it can overwhelm and impair liver function, resulting in metabolic disturbances such as high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. These metabolic changes can lead to heart disease and diabetes.”

So, now you know. This is not a random phenomenon. It’s purposeful. The benefit of knowing about the stress response and how it works is to realize that unhealthful eating and weight gain are not just about willpower but also about living a life of unmanaged stress, recognizing it and making a commitment to change it. Paying attention and taking action can save lives.


A Laughter Tip for a Healthy Heart from Mary Marcdante

As all of you our readers may gather, we like to have fun. I am a big proponent of healthy lifestyles, and, I have to say, it has to be fun, or why bother?! That’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward people who value fun:

“We can easily see how good laughter makes us feel and researchers have now documented that laughter is also good therapy for our hearts,” Mary Marcdante says. “A study done at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.

“It’s understandable that when you’re not feeling well, life isn’t as funny or enjoyable. But here’s the good news,” they continued.

“A study done by Dr. Lee Berk at UC-Irvine found that diabetic cardiac patients whose therapy included 30 minutes of humor a day that elicited laughter had fewer abnormal heart rates, lower blood pressure, and required less heart medication. A year later only 8% of those fun-loving patients had a recurrence of a heart attack compared to 42% of patients in standard therapy. Laughter works!” (Oh gosh, we knew that!)

Advice from Mary: HERE’S HOW TO DO IT
“This is a fun exercise that not only keeps your heart healthy but also strengthens your bladder! It’s especially good for pregnant and menopausal women or any woman with a leaky bladder. Practice your Kegel Exercises and laugh out loud at the same time!

“Wait!” she says, “Before you try this, make sure you tighten your pelvic muscles first and then laugh; reversing the order will put you in Depends sooner than necessary.”

Thank you, Mary! Mary helps people learn how to keep a daily dose of laughter and joyful emotions in their lives to help prevent illness, relieve the stress associated with living with disease, and increase overall health, happiness, quality of life and longevity.

Mary is a stress management expert, consumer health advocate, speaker, author, and Certified Laughter Leader offering dynamic, inspiring and informative programs that demonstrate the therapeutic and social value of laughter, and positive emotions.

Until next time, be good to yourself, and LAUGH A LOT, for your well being and those you love.

My vision for The Speak Well Being Group is to be a connector for selected speakers I know, love and believe in, with the audiences who will be inspired, motivated, and possibly, transformed by their perspectives, knowledge, empathy, compassion, information and, most importantly, capacity to enjoy the process, laughing at themselves and with you.

You’ll find many of our speakers on our website.
Or please call anytime and let us assist you: 503-699-5031

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