Stress may cause excess abdominal fat in otherwise slender women.
Non-overweight women who are vulnerable to the effects of stress are more likely to have excess abdominal fat, and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a study conducted at Yale by Elissa S. Epel, PhD suggests.
Abdominal fat is related to worse health, including greater risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Cortisol affects fat distribution by causing fat to be stored centrally-around the organs. Cortisol exposure can increase visceral fat-the fat surrounding the organs-in animals. People with diseases associated with extreme exposure to cortisol, such as severe recurrent depression and Cushing’s disease also have excessive amounts of visceral fat.
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Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., lead investigator in the study said…“We found that women with greater abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress. Also, greater exposure to life stress or psychological vulnerability to stress may explain their enhanced cortisol reactivity. In turn, their cortisol exposure may have led them to accumulate greater abdominal fat.”
“Everyone is exposed to stress, but some people may secrete more cortisol than others, and may secrete cortisol each time they face the same stressor,” Epel adds. “We predicted that reacting to the same stressors consistently by secreting cortisol would be related to greater visceral fat.”
After the first exposure to stress, women with greater abdominal fat felt more threatened by the study’s stressful tasks, performed more poorly on them, and secreted more cortisol. They also reported more life stress. By the third exposure to stress, the lean women with abdominal fat still consistently secreted more cortisol in response to stressful lab tasks.
“It is possible that greater exposure to stressful conditions or psychological vulnerability to stress has led them to overreact to stressors in their daily lives, so they have had greater lifetime exposure to cortisol,” Epel said. “Cortisol, in turn may have caused them to accumulate abdominal fat. Genetics, however, also play a role in shaping reactivity to stress, as well as body shape.”
Lifestyle and age may also influence levels of abdominal fat. Smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise all contribute to greater abdominal fat.
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