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Stress and our waistlines

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Dr Paul Baldock 2 minute read

Are doughnuts or deadlines the source of our weight gain? Are calories or computers to blame?

One of the biggest misconceptions of technological progress is that we will have less to do. Instead, technology has allowed the workplace, with all its meetings, long hours, emails and deadlines, an ubiquitous presence in our lives.

One of the undeniable results of our technological progress is stress. Most people associate stress with psychological impacts (emotional and cognitive).

However, what is far less appreciated is the powerful metabolic responses to stress that are written in our genes.

Most of our genes are ancient and have barely changed. On a genetic level, we are still fundamentally cavemen, at best (only one third of our genes are different to a fruit fly).

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For ancient humans, stress was not an impending deadline – it was getting enough to eat. That is what links chronic stress to our metabolism and, consequently, waistline.

I’ve been studying a protein called ‘Neuropeptide Y’ for more than 15 years and it illustrates perfectly the link between stress and eating.

Neuropeptide Y is a very powerful anxiolytic or stressreducing agent, but it is also one of the most powerful stimulators of appetite and fat accrual.

Neuropeptide Y acts to reduce stress, and we know that people with higher levels of Neuropeptide Y are less likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, but it still has its evolutionary action to reduce “metabolic stress” so higher levels also drive weight gain.

Thus through the actions of Neuropeptide Y, stress can drive increased appetite and obesity.

The power of Neuropeptide Y is astounding. Experiments show that increasing the level of Neuropeptide Y by two- to three-fold, targeting a single region of the brain of normal animals, results in body weight almost doubling within a few weeks.

The weight gain is caused by a massive increase in food intake, reduced physical activity and resultant fat accrual.

Neuropeptide Y responds to stress partly by stimulating hunger and reducing activity (both designed to accrue the maximum amount of fat possible). So, not only are our responses to chronic stress designed to make us hungry, they’re also designed to turn us into couch potatoes.

It is little wonder that as workloads increase, so have our waistlines.

For those who have tried to lose weight by dieting (and most likely failed), there may be a new ally in your corner – stress reduction. If we can put down the laptop, we may also be able to put down the doughnuts.

Dr Paul Baldock is head of the Skeletal Metabolism Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and a senior lecturer at St Vincent’s Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine.

Stress and our waistlines
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