Consider this strange paradox - the worrying you're doing about packing on the pounds this gorging season may actually up the flab on your body. The hypothesis proposed by some alt-health types is this: when we're stressed out, our bodies produce more of a hormone called cortisol. While cortisol has its place in your body's grand scheme (it's important for metabolizing carbohydrates and for dealing with stress), too much of it can literally turn your muscles into fat. That's because it raises your blood sugar by breaking down muscle tissue into amino acids that the liver then turns into sugar (glucose).
If you don't need the sugar for physical activity (think fight-or-flight) or injury-healing, your body will turn it into exactly what you're worrying about - fat. There's also some preliminary evidence that chronic high cortisol levels may increase fat stores in the abdomen, around your internal organs. That kind of fatty deposit pattern puts you at greatest risk for developing heart disease and diabetes.
The situation gets even more complicated when you consider that muscle is your most active metabolic tissue, so if you want to burn your food calories efficiently you need as much of the firm tissue as possible. High cortisol levels work against that goal. Talk about a Catch-22.
The medical community might not consider this theory fully proven, but there's plenty of recognition that stress sends folks straight to the fridge.
So if you want your diet and exercise plan to work this holiday (or any time of year), you also need to take time for deep relaxation or meditation and make sure you sleep enough. Developing your assertiveness and self-esteem is a major stress-buster. Some recommend 100 to 300 mg of phosphatidyl serine a day. Research on athletes indicates that PS can lower cortisol levels. Take soy- rather than cow-brain-derived PS.
What the experts say
"Some people are stress eaters - they tend to eat more when stressed. Others eat less. There's a small group who display the night-eating syndrome. They consume most of their calories after 6 pm and have little appetite in the morning. Some of these people will wake up during the night and eat more. Studies of this group found them to be higher-stressed. We know that cortisol levels go up when people are stressed. Some have suggested that higher levels of cortisol are associated with more upper-body fat distribution. There's evidence that people with upper-body fat distribution are more reactive to stress as well."
PATRICK O'NEIL , clinical psychologist, director, Weight Management Center, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina
"High cortisol leads to decreased thyroid function, so metabolism gets lower. You have weight gain and difficulty losing the weight. When stressed, you tend to eat comfort foods, carbs. It's the body trying to increase serotonin to feel better. Stay away from sugar, caffeine and alcohol when you're stressed. Go for good-quality protein, non-starchy vegetables and eat smaller meals throughout the day to keep blood sugar stable. Relaxation has to be an active process. It might be using a tape, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
CAROLE MA , naturopathic doctor, Toronto
"Weight gain is about energy expenditure and energy intake. If stress is causing a change in your eating patterns and/or physical activity behaviours, the possibility of weight gain is increased. What we need to emphasize is that physical activity is a useful strategy for dealing with that stress in the first place. Build up to 30 minutes a day. You can do it in shorter chunks. Get off the bus a stop early. When you feel that you're changing your diet as a result of stress, you can identify that as a warning signal. That's when you want your celery sticks out.
GUY FAULKNER , assistant professor, exercise and health psychology, faculty of physical education and health, U of T
"People who have Cushings, a disease of their cortisol level, tend to have redistribution of fat to the abdomen, and that may well be related to cortisol. In Cushings, cortisol levels are high for long periods of time. Intermittent elevations of the stress hormones may not have the same implication for the distribution of fat as continuous elevation. People with elevated adrenaline (another stress hormone) tend to have weight loss instead of weight gain."
Robert Josse , endocrinologist, professor of medicine, University of Toronto
"Many of us are cortisol reactors. We produce more cortisol than normal when we're under stress. Not sleeping properly and getting insufficient rest will elevate cortisol levels. It's a fat-promoting hormone, similar to insulin. It also stimulates appetite and leads to cravings for high-fat, high-carb foods. Learn to relax so you dissipate the cortisol in your system. One of the best ways is gentle exercise, 20 to 30 minutes a day. Exercising too much creates another stress. Take three five-to-10-minute meditation mini-breaks a day."
ANN LOUISE GITTLEMAN , PhD, nutrition specialist, author, The Fat Flush Plan