The Trick Stress Plays on Your Metabolism
Gillian White – BSc, MSc., PhD Candidate
A sheep in wolf’s clothing: The mean trick stress plays on your body’s metabolism.
University of Toronto, Department of Exercise Sciences
For most people reading this article, it’s a no-brainer to say that stress is bad. What stress is an why it’s “bad” is a little bit hazier. There has been a huge amount of focus on stress and health in the general media, including the Forever Fit Science articles and it can be a lot to digest. It can sometimes feel like the more you read, the less you know – What is stress? Is it always bad? Why is it bad? Stress is a non-specific response to your brain or body perceiving that it is out of balance.
This can be anything from a sprained ankle (acute stress) to a high pressure job (overwhelming psychological exertion) to a clinical mental or physical illness. Interestingly, no matter its underlying cause, stress presents itself as elevated fight or flight activation (sympathetic nervous activation and cortisol activation). Which causes higher resting inflammation throughout the body (as opposed to an ankle sprain where it would be localized).
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For the purposes of this article, we are only considering chronic stress, or stress that is experienced with such frequency that the body stays in an elevated state of unbalance. This chronic stress is the kind that concerns us as far as health risks. When your body is in a constant state of fight or flight and inflammation is elevated persistently, it can become like the boy who cried wolf. “Inflammation” sounds ominous, but it is really just a signaling process that alerts the body of unbalance, disruption, or damage and enacts a repair process. The problem comes when it’s persistently elevated, the systems it signals become worn out or less responsive to the cry for help. Ultimately, when our body is in need of repair or fight or flight activation, the whole system functions much less effectively.
While this has a vast array of implications for our health from cardiovascular to infection fighting and mental health (Martinez-Gonzalez et al. 2014), one important effect is how stress changes our metabolism. While there are infinity food fads going around, it has been fairly well vetted that the “Mediterranean diet”. Essentially a diet that includes polyunsaturated fats, has health benefits including cardiovascular protection, lower risk of cancer, and lower risk of diabetes among other chronic illnesses. This is partly due to the higher anti-oxidant promoting effects of this diet and partly the null effects on inflammation, compared with a diet that includes saturated fats that promotes inflammation and is a lifestyle characteristic that increases the risk of these same illnesses.
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A recent study by Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (2016) in Molecular Psychiatry found that when two groups of women consumed a diet similar to the Mediterranean Diet (high in “good fats”). They had lower inflammatory markers compared to when they ate a diet high in saturated “bad” fats. So this finding supports the idea that the Mediterranean Diet is an important part of a healthy lifestyle that can reduce health risks. However! In women who reported a high level of daily stress prior to the healthier meal, their inflammatory profiles measured from the blood looked the same as of they had eaten the unhealthy meal.
This is an important finding for people who are trying to improve their health without considering a holistic view of our health. While a healthy diet is important for providing nutrients and supporting our body’s needs, ignoring other aspects of our health, especially mental health in the form of daily stress, can seriously undermine the healthy changes you’ve worked so hard to make.
Exercise contributes to lowering mental and physical stress by acting as an anti-inflammatory when it’s done consistently – teaching our body to retain it’s responsiveness to stress by acting like a small, manageable dose of stress. Health eating contributes to lower inflammation and promotes anti-oxidant stores to protect against the development of illness. Using these tools in addition to structuring your life to promote balance and manage stress are all important for overall health outcomes. When we ignore the context of our lives that we’re making these changes in, they can sometimes be as effective as a BandAid for a bullet hole.
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Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Dominguez LJ, Delgado-Rodriguez M. (2014). Olive oil consumption and risk of CHD and/or stroke: a meta-analysis of case-control, cohort and intervention studies. British Journal of Nutrition, 112:248–259.
Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, Peng J, Malarkey WB, Habash D, & Belury MA. (2016). Depression, daily stressors and inﬂammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices. Molecular Psychiatry, 00: 1-7.