By Nancy Bryan, Ph.D.
Can anxiety make you fat? The answer is an emphatic “Yes.” If someone finds it hard to accept this assertion, it may be because it’s hard to grasp how anything that seems to be occurring in the mind could make an apparently unrelated something happen in the body.
The best way to understand the process by which anxiety is translated into excess weight is to visualize the body as a continuing messaging system whose complexity dwarfs the distribution systems of Amazon and UPS put together. While you are feeling a mental state you call “anxiety,” your body is undergoing a complex set of processes known as “stress,” or “the stress response.” The stress response calls forth an outpouring of a dazzling array of hormones (norepinephrine, cortisol, dopamine, and others), but for the purposes of this brief piece let’s focus first on cortisol, the single hormone within the stress response that is primarily responsible for fat formation.
Before he developed the South Beach Diet, Dr. Arthur Agatston, a cardiologist, noticed that many of his obese cardiology patients at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes displayed what is called “metabolic syndrome,” a condition with three well-recognized symptoms: “central obesity” (i.e., belly fat); “insulin resistance”; and “reactive hypoglycemia.” What Dr. Agatston discovered in 2003 has since been reinforced by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig in their admirably rigorous 2012 book, It Starts with Food. According to the Hartwigs, chronic elevated cortisol levels are responsible for doing the following three things: increasing blood-sugar levels by impairing glucose uptake from the bloodstream; contributing to insulin resistance; and “preferentially direct[ing] body fat to the abdominal region.” All of the major markers for metabolic syndrome, and thus fat formation, are right there, courtesy of chronic elevated levels of cortisol. [Read more…]