TOXIC STRESS

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LIFESTYLE CORNER--In this new column, NWHRC Medical Advisor Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, writes about lifestyle issues important to all women: nutrition, ways to beat stress, taking care of yourself, as well as your partner and family, exercise, and many others. Dr. Peeke's upbeat and positive take on these issues will help you learn new strategies for a healthier lifestyle.

Stress can make you frazzled. Stress can make you sick.

But did you also know that stress could make you fat? And keep you fat. It's a scientific fact. How you respond to and cope with stress determines your appetite, body composition, and overall fitness level. Starting in your 30s, the accrued stresses of a lifetime, declining metabolism, and the inevitable onset of perimenopause for women and reduced testosterone for men begin to take a physical toll. If you are over 40, you are currently going through your third metabolic decrease in three decades. Deposits of fat have settled at the waistline and your energy level is flagging; changing either of these seems impossible.

If you are a woman over 40, your life is especially frenzied (juggling aging parents, career, spouse, children) and your hormones--including your stress hormones--are beginning to flood the body somewhat unpredictably, which can result in mood swings, muscle fatigue, loss of memory, and intense food cravings. Men are affected in much the same way.

These physical and emotional changes can be exacerbated by a chronic, long-term stress, or toxic stress, which specifically strikes men and women between the ages of 40 and 60 and leads to self-destructive eating behaviors. Toxic stress is any form of stress that the individual perceives as associated with being relentless, out of control, and fills that person with hopelessness and helplessness. Our minds determine what is simple, manageable stress, and what is toxic stress.

When stress hits, different brain chemicals are released to help the body handle the physical response. One of the chemicals, cortisol--or stress hormone-is a powerful appetite "trigger." You want to keep cortisol under control, below the appetite-stimulating threshold in the human body. When toxic stress is present, men and women often find themselves mindlessly standing at the kitchen counter foraging for food after a long, hard day.

But, science now shows that when you allow toxic stress to permeate your daily life, leaving you feeling out of control, the extra calories you mindlessly eat due to the cortisol stimulated appetite are adding weight to your body in a unique place--inside your belly, expanding your waistline from the inside out. Fat deposits around the abdomen are associated with life threatening illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and cancer. I call this toxic weight. Toxic stress leads to toxic weight when chronically high levels of cortisol actually stimulate the fat cells inside the abdomen to fill with more fat.

The expanding waistline as you age can be life threatening! The goal is to learn to become more stress resilient. Here's how:

Tips to Turn Off Toxic Stress and Prevent or Reduce Toxic Weight:

Learn how to REGROUP when life throws you a curve ball of stress. Step back and realize your original Plan A approach may not work under stress. Quickly move to Plan B or C and adapt to the new challenge. Desperately holding onto Plan A creates toxic stress.

Get up and move. Physical movement increases the secretion of beta-endorphins that are the most powerful way to neutralize the stress response and keep cortisol in check. Even if you get up from your desk for five minutes, it helps.

Eat fruit, crunchy cereal or pretzels if you feel the need to eat when stress is building. Avoid refined processed sugars (candy, cookies) and starches (white bread, pasta, rice) which will increase your appetite even more and lead to binges.

Escape for a short while and give your mind a break. Get up and change your environment. Walk outside, call a friend and stop thinking about the stress long enough to re-energize and approach the problem with greater clarity.

--Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, Medical Advisor to the NWHRC.

Dr. Peeke is a Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, and Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Dr. Peeke is author of the best selling book Fight Fat After Forty. (Viking Press, 2000)

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By Pamela Peeke

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