We all know that stress is bad for us, and now new research finds that when you add chronic stress to the lives of female monkeys who eat the typical American diet they put on weight in a most dangerous place – Stress raises fat around the middle of the body, affectionately known as belly fat.
Fat in this area isn’t just awful to look at, its known to be trouble, making conditions like blocked arteries and metabolic syndrome much more likely according to Carol A. Shively, Ph.D. and her team out of Wake Forest University. The research is set to appear in the next issue of the journal Obesity.
Shively and her team had shown before how socially stressed moneys (at the bottom of the pecking order in the monkey world) get blocked arteries faster than control monkeys fed the very same diet but without the stress.
With the latest work the team wanted to learn more about stress, and how something outside your body seems to be turned into troublesome plaque on the inside of your body.
Female monkeys are much like human females in that they aren’t as likely to get heart disease as males. Yet the stressed female monkeys who had the dangerous belly fat were just as likely to develop heart disease as male monkeys.
What this says for women is that if you have visceral fat and metabolic syndrome you pretty much obliterate any protection you get from being female.
Over the two-year study period Shively and her colleagues collected a whole lot of data on female cynomolgus monkeys – ones who were considered under stress and those considered being stress free.
The stressed subjects had higher levels of cortisol, known to be a stress hormone, than did monkeys not under stress. The stressed monkeys also had abnormal menstrual cycles, meaning they were much less likely to ovulate than non-stressed monkeys.
The evaluation of the subjects included a CT scan that identified visceral fat -the medical term for the fat in your abdomen that sometimes sticks out (the “beer belly”), though other times this fat isn’t visible on the outside. Visible or not, belly fat wraps itself around the internal organs.
Even when compared to monkeys, who were the same weight, the CT scans showed that the subjects under stress had a lot more belly fat.
When the team looked at the animals’ arteries, they found plaque as well. High levels of cortisol, over the long term are known to cause belly fat to accumulate, as well as making fat cells throughout the body bigger.
This is what’s known as “sick fat” according to Harold Bays, MD, the medical director of the Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center who reviewed the study.
“Your body fat can become diseased like any other body tissue,” Bays explains. “Your fat cells are getting bigger and your fat tissue is getting bigger and neither the cells nor the tissues work as well as they should. The fat is sick.”
What’s more, the monkeys with all the belly fat had metabolic syndrome, just like people do. Metabolic syndrome, a problem for an estimated 50 million Americans, is actually a group of risk factors all found in one person and are what put patients at risk for heart disease, stroke and other peripheral vascular disorders as well as type 2 diabetes.
If you’re worried about your own belly bulge it’s not too late to do something about it.
While fat in this part of the body is more worrisome than carrying weight in other areas, the good news is that by making real, solid lifestyle changes (forget “miracle diets” or the latest ab-flattening gadget) and doing a few targeted abdominal exercises you can be rid of that unsightly bulge in no time.