Lose Stress, Lose Weight

Sarah, a long-standing patient of mine was baffled. Despite eating well and exercising she had put on thirty pounds in the past two years, mostly around her midsection. In addition she was tired and achy, had poor sleep and worsening memory and concentration. And she was only thirty years old. The one thing that had changed in her life was a difficult divorce leading to on going stress with her ex husband and their two children.

Sarah is not alone in joining the ranks of the obese. Obesity is an epidemic that is sweeping the developed world. Excess weight is not only a risk for diabetes and heart disease, but recent research has shown obesity associated with increased cancer incidence and worse outcomes in those with cancer. Dietary habits are strongly linked to this new health challenge, especially the use of high glycemic foods (those that spike blood sugar), excess calories (supersized meals) and fats that stimulate inflammation (trans fats, baked goods, red meat and whole dairy not organically produced).  One common thread in all these dietary indiscretions is the effect on blood chemistry including elevating cortisol levels, the main stress hormone from the adrenal gland. (see The Adaptation Diet for more info.)However, as Sarah now knows, it is not diet alone that raises cortisol and increases the risk for obesity and disease. The other major trigger is chronic stress.

Cortisol is essential for life, without it survival would be impossible.  It is the main way we respond to any stress mobilizing energy through release of fatty acids, raising blood sugar, moving blood from the digestive system to the muscles. In addition cortisol suppresses the immune system, reduces inflammation and decreases sex hormone production. It is catabolic, breaking down muscle for energy. All these changes help survival, and normally after the stress is resolved, cortisol returns to baseline levels.

However, the stress we experience today and that experienced by our ancestors  and to which our body’s response is geared are different. In past generations stressful events were about survival: you either caught lunch or you were lunch. Today, whether the stress is a boss who does not respect you, a sick family member, a difficult relationship, or dealing with the onslaught of stimulation and lack of quiet time, the cortisol response does not resolve as it does after a fight or flight response.  Elevated cortisol continues to change the body and is associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and increased cancer risks. This is what happened to Sarah.

To gain control over the stress response, Sarah used the information from Power of the Five Elements to understand her Adaptation Type. She learned that the anger and frustration she was carrying was so difficult to let go of because  she was a Wood Adaptation Type who has a very hard time with forgiveness and patience. Once she was able to see her behavior through this ‘map’. she followed exercises to enhance her ability to forgive and reduced her cortisol and eventually lost the extra pounds as well as learning to feel better about herself.

Foods to Improve Adaptation and Cholesterol

When I do talks to the public one of the messages I give is to invest in your health and don’t let your cells go extinct. To protect your cells and organ function there are food groups which are not used enough in most people’s diet  that are extremely beneficial in improving cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and reducing inflammatory hormones. First among these are legumes which include soybean, split peas, lentils, navy and other beans. These foods are rich in soluble fiber, protein and complex carbohydrates leading to improved markers of biochemical adaptation. Use one-half cup a day and your cells will be happy.

In addition, consumption of one-quarter cup per day of almonds, hazelnuts, pecan, walnuts and other tree nuts was found to improve levels of fiber, Vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and potassium and lower intake of sodium.  Nuts should be consumed raw and organically grown. They can reduce total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol and are a great source of protein. The high potassium and low sodium found in nuts can help with hypertension as well.

Simple dietary changes can go a long way towards prevention of stress induced disease and improve adaptation as described in The Adaptation Diet.

Ashwaganda and Adaptogens

I just returned from a fascinating trip to India where we visited among other areas, Kerala, in southern India. Kerala is famous for spices and tea plantations dating back to the time of the Roman empire. Cochin, the port city of Kerala, has been a center of commerce and home to successive waves of European traders for centuries. In the verdant hills of Kerala we toured a spice plantation which grew vanilla, black pepper, cardamom, ginger and ashwaganda, an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine.

Though our guide emphasized that ashwaganda was the ‘Indian Viagra’, I knew it had many other important properties. Ashwaganda, as I described in The Adaptation Diet, is one of the most potent adaptogens, a group of herbs that supports healthy adrenal function and improves the ability to adapt to stressful circumstances. Studies show less adrenal enlargement, blood sugar elevation or cortisol depletion in animals pretreated with ashwaganda and exposed to stressful conditions. People treated with ashwaganda are less anxious in stressful situations. It has effects on androgen production,GABA levels in the brain as well as reducing inflammation and improving immune function.

Ashwaganda, along with the program outlined in The Adaptation Diet, can be an important tool in maintaining the ability to adapt to stressful circumstances.