Stress and Obesity Link Increases Chronic Disease

Stress and Obesity Link Increases Chronic Disease

Nearly everyone understands that too much stress in the mind can contribute to, or even be the cause of, poor health outcomes. Yet how much stress is too much? And how can stressful situations be better mitigated by those at risk?

Life is very demanding at times. Trouble brews in our workplaces and/or at home, relatives need assistance or the financial outlook is grim and people inevitably spread themselves too thin. But there are ways of identifying your risk and improving how your body copes with the rising tide of stress in our competitive, 24/7-minded society. According to the Medical Psychological Association, more than one-third of Americans live daily with “extreme stress”.

The “Stress Gap” 

Recent evidence about how different people deal with chronic, long-term stress now sheds new light on what scientists call the “stress gap”— a term that describes how some people deal with stress without a major health impact, but others, when faced with the same stressful situations, fared poorly with health outcomes that showed higher-than-normal blood pressure readings, elevated levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone), as well as a greater tendency to suffer from colds and flus, heart disease, allergies, type II diabetes, and cancer. Overstressed individuals are also typically affected neurologically, with those in the most extreme situations suffering from impaired memory and the skills needed for good concentration.

Chronic stress can also accelerate the normal aging process due to increased levels of inflammation; chronic stress causes or contributes to increased depression, anxiety, and mental anguish because increased cortisol is known to decrease neurotransmitters that help combat depression, such as serotonin and dopamine.

Chronic Stress Leads to Epigenetic Changes

In a 2014 study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers noted epigenetic changes — changes in how genes are expressed (switched “on” or “off”) — in the brains of lab mice that had suffered from chronic stress, changes that can accelerate or even promote increases in all types of chronic disease. Further testing revealed that the mice also had a lower level of an important molecule called mGlu2 in a region of the brain’s hippocampus, a direct result of epigenetic changes. That molecule is crucial, explain scientists, because it helps regulate the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which facilitates communications between neurons. By identifying these changes, future physicians may be better equipped to specifically target the underlying causes of depression.

“Like people, each animal has unique experiences as it goes through its life. And we suspect that these life experiences can alter the expression of genes, and as a result, affect an animal’s susceptibility to stress,” explains study author Bruce McEwen, M.D. and Ph.D., and professor and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York City. “We have taken an important step toward explaining the molecular origins of this stress gap by showing that inbred mice react differently to stress, with some developing behaviors that resemble anxiety and depression [while] others remain resilient.”

Overweight People Are At Risk 

How can you identify yourself as a person at risk? One way to take charge is to have your cortisol levels checked by your physician, especially if you are currently experiencing a stressful period that corresponds with a series of higher-than-normal BP readings. (A normal blood cortisol reading should be anywhere from six to 12, but those people experiencing high stress could have cortisol blood levels of 25 or more.) Another indication that you should act now is if you reach a certain illness trifecta — the triple threat of high stress/high cortisol, high blood pressure/heart disease, and an unhealthy weight with excess body fat (anyone with a body mass index of 25 or more). As it turns out, overweight and obese individuals are not only at a greater risk for stress, they are also generally more harmed by it.

Another 2014 study, this one done by scientists at Brandis University in Boston, noted evidence of an increased level of the inflammatory agent interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is linked to stress, in individuals with higher body weights. While initial testing showed a similar response by both the overweight and the lean study participants, the IL-6 levels in the obese individuals doubled by day two, while the leaner group’s levels remained stable. What scientists found was a direct correlation between levels of IL-6 and BMI — the higher the BMI, the greater the IL-6 level, even in those without weight problems. What researchers learned was that every extra pound puts your body at greater risk for an inability to mitigate stress and the metabolic and epigenetic changes that may come along with it.

What You Can Do

What does it all mean? For starters, if you’re overweight you should be paying more attention to your body. Avoiding stressful situations is not enough. While mindful meditation can go a long way in reducing the impact of your stress, daily regular physical activity is among the only real solutions to enabling your body to deal directly with excess cortisol. That physical exertion helps recreate the “flight” of the “fight or flight” response triggered by cortisol’s release. In addition, strenuous exercise also tends to increase the neurotransmitters in the brain associated with pain relief, and obviously, relief from depression, anxiety, and yes, stress.