Type 2 diabetes carries the label ‘lifestyle disease’, and is one of the epidemics of our hectic way of life is stress.
Did you realise that as you strive to be all things to all people, that your stress hormones are busy packing away dangerous levels of fat around your internal organs? One, in particular, plays a major role in the process, earning it the nickname of stress hormone.
The Story of Cortisol
Medical science has known for a long time that stress is a trigger for the body to store active (visceral) fat. Stress causes a metabolic chain reaction leading to weight gain, insulin resistance, and eventually if not checked, a high risk of type 2 diabetes. The hormone cortisol has several important roles but we can’t help noticing that some of its functions were intended for humans who lived their lives in a very different way to twenty-first-century man.
When our brain registers stress, our hormones immediately swing into action and cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. It then proceeds to slow the production of insulin so that plenty of glucose remains readily available for use by our fighting or fleeing body, rather than being shunted into cells for storage.
The problem is though, we may not even need to stand, let alone engage in battle or run for our lives. Also, this rush of glucose is meant to be a very short term measure designed to get us through a dangerous moment. Unfortunately, for many of us, the moment can turn into hours or even days and because our glucose levels are constantly raised, insulin resistance eventually occurs. It’s this scenario that can lead to the onset of type 2 diabetes.
How Does Stress Make Us Fat?
Because of the frequency of our episodes of stress, we are constantly triggering the adrenals to churn out cortisol. This mobilises triglycerides (fat in the blood) which, unless we take plenty of physical exercise, have nowhere to go, so cortisol then deposits them mainly into visceral fat cells. These cells, buried deep within our abdominal walls, have more cortisol receptors than subcutaneous cells.
Because cortisol instigates high blood sugar levels as well as insulin suppression, this also leads to cells being deprived of glucose. Hunger signals give us urgent prompts to eat, but our body doesn’t actually need the extra food. The resultant excess glucose is then stored as fat, and so it goes on…
According to a scholarly article in ‘Today’s Dietician’, there is a direct link between cortisol levels and calorie intake. Cortisol prompts food cravings by affecting the part of the brain that controls appetite, hunger and satiety. It is also able to influence other hormones to stimulate feelings of hunger.
Because cortisol is so complex and its function often quite inappropriate to our lifestyle, it’s a good idea to understand as much as possible about the role it plays in metabolism. This knowledge will enable you to make certain lifestyle changes to either protect yourself from impending type 2 diabetes or, if you are already diagnosed, to help stabilise your blood sugars.
Here are a few key points:
- Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced within the adrenal glands which sit at the top of your kidneys.
- Waking up from sleep, fasting, eating, exercising, fear, anxiety, or just being in a general state of stress all trigger the release of cortisol.
- Cortisol regulates energy, and it does this by selecting a fuel (fat, protein or carbohydrate) most appropriate for the needs of the body at any given time.
- Cortisol moves triglycerides from one area to another to either fuel muscles during exercise or to give the body protein for energy. This is achieved by a process called gluconeogenesis where amino acids are converted within the liver into useable carbohydrate or glucose.
- It can also move fat from storage areas of the body and relocate it within the abdominal cavity.
- As an anti-inflammatory agent, cortisol suppresses the immune system during times of physical and psychological stress. This is why we often get ill following a prolonged period of worry or trauma.
How Does Stress Induced Visceral Fat Cause Type 2 Diabetes?
Excessive levels of cortisol, present for an extended length of time, may cause changes at cellular level. This can result in fat stores, as well as excess circulating fat, to be relocated and deposited deep in the abdomen. This leads to dangerous amounts of visceral fat accumulating and causing raised blood glucose levels. Eventually, your struggling pancreas will be unable to cope with producing enough insulin to deal with the continually high levels of glucose and type 2 diabetes may result. Diabetes UK use a video clip explaining this in fairly basic terms.
Dietary Tips for Stabilising Blood Sugar
Diabetes UK offers extensive advice on how to control weight, they explain that making the right food choices is a vital part of keeping visceral fat at bay and controlling blood sugar. When you make healthy food choices, rather than sugary, fatty processed options, you restore the balance of your metabolism which leads to a more peaceful state of mind as well as a feeling of greater well being. Here are some tips for getting your diet on track:
This includes soft drinks and fresh fruit juice, which is loaded with concentrated fructose, sweetened cereals, cakes, biscuits, jam, marmalade, honey, chocolate bars, sugar-laden desserts, pastries and too much alcohol.
Avoid refined carbohydrates
Starchy foods such as white bread, pasta, potatoes and white (polished) rice are refined carbohydrates. Try to keep them to a minimum, especially if you are not physically active.
Choose carbs that fall within the low-glycemic index
These are good carbs which take longer to reach the bloodstream, so avoid causing spikes in blood sugar. Examples are sweet potatoes (yams), wholemeal bread and pasta, brown rice, pulses, beans, lentils.
Make food choices that slow sugar absorption
Oatmeal, berries, fibrous vegetables and fruits, pulses and legumes all contain soluble fibre which slows glucose absorption, ensuring that sugar doesn’t hit your digestive system too quickly.
The dietary supplement inulin ensures the slow passage of food through the digestive system. It has also been found to lower triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are blood fats which are also found in dairy products, meat and oils. When you are active they get used up for energy but if not then they will be stored as fat. Chicory root is an excellent source of inulin powder.
Phytonutrients are also good for slowing down the absorption of blood sugar. They are found in plant foods and in whole grains. Berries are very rich in polyphenols which are a type of phytonutrient. They slow the rush of blood glucose after eating starches because they inhibit carbohydrate enzymes in the small intestine.
Managing Stress to Reduce Cortisol Levels
Less stress leads to less cortisol and ultimately less active (visceral) fat. There are many ways that you can help yourself when it comes to reducing stress:
Physical movement of any kind
Exercise is great for stress relief and just going out for a walk is hugely beneficial, in fact, anything that means you are out there doing something rather than sitting on the sofa or at your desk for hours on end. Even in a busy office, you need to make sure you take frequent breaks to stand up and walk around, even if it’s just to the loo and back. If you have to drive long distances, make sure you have several stops so you can be on your feet for a while during the trip.
There is clinical evidence that yoga has a regenerative effect on the cells of the pancreas. It is also a very powerful means of reducing stress and achieving a balance between body and mind.
This is a very effective way to de-stress. The technique is easy to master and once you’ve perfected it you can call it up at a moment’s notice. It usually incorporates lessons in deep, relaxing breathing techniques, often with visualisation to take you into a state of deeper tranquillity. Try downloading a meditation app to your phone so you can take any opportunity of a ten-minute relaxation fix.
If you take a moment to notice your breathing when you are anxious or stressed, you will most probably find you are doing fast, shallow breaths. Try consciously stopping for a moment to take about five deep breaths. Do it slowly, making the air fill your lungs from the bottom first so that your stomach goes out as your lungs fill up. As you take these deep breaths your nervous tension will ease. Try to get into the habit of making your breathing much slower and deeper.
Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. A well-rested body and mind is much better equipped to deal with everything, so take steps to create a calm and peaceful environment for slipping into dreamland.
The best time to take a nap during the day is 8 hours after waking, with the perfect nap time of 24 minutes according to Daniel H. Pink in his bestselling book ‘When, The Scientific Secrets Of Perfect Timing’
And By the Way
It has been scientifically proven that laughter lowers blood sugar levels. So treat yourself to a good belly laugh as often as possible.
Yes, you guessed – it knocks stress on the head.