Posts Tagged ‘Illness’

Most Weight Gain Comes from Stress, Scientists Say

February 20th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

People get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. At least that’s the most widely held explanation for the growing obesity crisis around the world. But it’s not that simple, says Dr. Achim Peters, a professor of neurology at the University of Lübeck in Germany and author of “The Selfish Brain – Why Our Brain Sabotages Dieting and Resists the Body” (Ullstein, 2011).

The worldwide obesity epidemic is in truth a stress epidemic, and unhealthy weight gain is just one of the ills that plague an increasingly stressed population trying to cope with the ever-growing demands of modern life, he says in an interview with the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (2/9/2013).

In reality, weight issues are often rooted in socio-economic difficulties like job loss, poverty, rising food prices and other existential uncertainties, he says. It puts tremendous pressure on people. Stress-producing situations can be immensely damaging to our health, especially when they persist over long periods of time with no reprieve in sight.

Dr. Peters is best known for the “Selfish Brain Theory,” which he developed together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists over a decade ago when researching the origins of obesity. In essence, the theory describes how the brain takes care of its own needs first when regulating energy distribution throughout the body. It is “selfish” in the sense that it always wins out in any competition for energy resources, at the expense of all other organs if necessary.

In times of stress, the brain spends particularly high amounts of energy, which requires an increase in food intake. During acute stress situations, a rapid spike in energy demand is natural and not harmful. It is different when stress is prolonged. Then it can become a chronic state and as such quite dangerous.

To shed some light on these dynamics, it is important to understand our body’s hormonal responses to stress. Energy in the body is regulated and mobilized by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol selects the right type and amount of energy to meet the body’s demands when responding to a particular situation. Cortisol is also responsible for mobilizing energy by tapping into the body’s fat stores and moving it to where it’s most needed, primarily in the brain.

Studies in animals and humans have shown that heightened secretion of cortisol is associated with increased appetite, especially for sugar. In cases of enduring stress, this can stimulate food consumption to the point of overeating with all the detrimental consequences we are so familiar with. Moreover, too much cortisol can slow the metabolism, causing more weight gain than would normally occur. It can also affect fat distribution. Fat in the stomach area is considered a greater health risk than when it’s stored around the hips and thighs.

Ultimately, we will not be able to address the obesity crisis effectively if we continue to ignore the effects of chronic stress on our hormonal system, says Dr. Peters. Asking people to diet and force themselves to lose weight through deprivation can only make things worse. The solution is to de-stress our lives. This doesn’t mean more yoga and meditating, although that can help too, but mostly better socio-economic security and, as a result, peace of mind for more people.

As a point in case he cites a study conducted by the University of Chicago that compared two groups of single mothers from low-income neighborhoods. One group of women was moved to a more upscale area with safer streets, greater job opportunities and better schools, the other was left in place. Within a few years, most of the women who had moved away showed considerable improvement in their health, especially in reduction of diabetes and obesity. As their stress lessened, their well-being increased on every level.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading Can’t Lose Weight? t Could Be Stress

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Even Going on Vacation Can Be Scary

August 19th, 2011 at 12:55 pm by timigustafson

Americans used to take time off and kick back during the summer months. Not so any more. In bad economic times, many people are too afraid to leave the workplace for a few weeks or even just a few days.

Those who already feel apprehensive about their job security don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Especially when many businesses undergo downsizing or restructuring, employees are extremely hesitant to leave work behind. For some, it can be more stressful to be absent from the office than to stay put. “People are worried that a temporary vacation could lead to permanent time off,” wrote Cindy Goodman, a business columnist at the Miami Herald. “The people who still have a job are really feeling overwhelmed and overworked. But they’re afraid to take vacations […] at a time when they need them more than ever.”

Not all employees actually believe they would be fired for using their hard-earned vacation time. But many do fear that the company could come to consider their position as redundant, that co-workers could sabotage their projects or take otherwise advantage of their absence, or that important decisions could be made without their knowledge and input, among other concerns.

Many older workers still think of vacations as a luxury that does not sit well with their conservative work ethic. There is a long-held belief that working harder than anyone else is what has made America great. And then, of course, there are the hard-charging, never-tiring, always-doing-what-it-takes workaholics who think that taking breaks is only for sissies. “Forfeiting vacations can be a ‘macho thing,’ said Mitchell Lee Marks, a psychologist, management consultant and president of JoiningForces.org, a consulting firm in San Francisco.

Today, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not have labor laws that include minimum leave. The European Union, for example, requires that all workers take a minimum of four weeks vacation time every year. Many member states exceed that mandate. Those numbers are unfathomable for most Americans.

Expedia.com, a travel reservation company, conducted a survey that compared the vacation habits of citizens around the world. According to this research, 34 percent of Americans don’t take the full vacation time they earn each year. By contrast, only 22 percent of French and 24 percent of German workers don’t use up their allotted time. Only the Japanese vacation less than we do – just 8 percent take off every day they’re owed.

There are multiple reasons why Americans are less inclined to enjoy their holidays. “In countries where vacation time is mandated by law, it’s not something that people think about in terms of their relationship with their employer,” said Jennifer Schramm, a manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization that serves human resources professionals. “In the U.S., our vacation allotment is part of the employment relationship. Given that our paid leave is closely tied to our relationship to our employer, our willingness to take advantage of it is likelier to change in response to external factors, especially the economy or the job market,” she added.

That doesn’t mean that workers here would not like more paid time off than they are getting from their jobs – if they get any at all. Survey after survey has shown that Americans are dying to have more quality time for themselves and their families, even if it would mean a cut in pay.

Still, “sacrificing your vacation won’t necessarily save your job,” said Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” who is also an advocate for a federal paid-leave law. “I talked to a woman who worked at a company for 25 years and had five or six weeks of paid leave. She only used three, four or five days a year – and she got laid off like everyone else. This does not insulate you from layoffs. It does leave you wondering why you gave up your life,” said Robinson.

Even those who dare to venture off once in a while don’t always know how to separate themselves entirely from their work place. Many workers find it unthinkable to leave their laptops and smart phones permanently switched off during vacations. “Because of modern technology, it has become almost impossible to completely disengage ourselves from the office,” said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” “The border between what is work and what is personal is more porous than ever. Whereas the transition from working to going on vacation used to be like an on-off switch, it’s now more of a dimmer switch.”

Not everyone thinks that “working vacations” are a good idea. “Workers who don’t take vacations hurt themselves and their companies,” said Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of “The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.” “Overworked employees get sick more often and place themselves at risk for long-term illnesses, such as heart disease. Companies suffer because their employees are too tired or ill to be productive.”

Today, many companies understand better the importance of a health-promoting work environment and establish their policies accordingly. But often it is easier to make structural changes than to overcome the habits of individuals. If people don’t know how to silence their inner taskmaster once in a while, encouraging flexibility and offering more options won’t be enough. For many, it’s a cultural issue, or perhaps it’s generational, according to Dan Ryan, head of a business consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m a baby boomer… and I’m accustomed to working. My kids have a different perspective. They’re more likely to take a vacation,” he said. Well, as they say, you can teach even an old dog new tricks.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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