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Stress is bad, but one expert says it's also fattening

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Not only is stress bad for your psychological health, new research points out stress could do a number on your waistline, too.

A diet book that's out now suggests that chronic, unrelenting stress can lead to dangerous weight gain, at least in some middle-aged men and women.

Pamela Peeke, author of "Fight Fat After Forty" and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, said that when people are exposed to a stressful situation -- the brain sends out a stress hormone. That hormone, in turn, triggers a chain reaction that causes certain cells to retain more fat.

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"There are special receptors on the fat cells deep inside the abdomen which are specifically intended to hook up with stress hormone -- and stress hormone stimulates them to accept fat," said Peeke, a former senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

She said the human body has a predisposition to store up fat for when it engages the "fight or flight" defense mechanism, where a speeding heart can flood muscles with blood for on-the-spot strength.

That worked fine for our ancestors, Peeke said, but the brain can't tell the difference between survival stress and chronic, daily stress. Thus, stressed-out folks are storing more fat than people who approach their day relaxed or in a better state of mind, according to her book.

But relaxation techniques may not be enough, Peeke said, since the best way to block stress hormones is through beta endorphin -- produced during exercise.

"Weightlifting on a routine basis -- meaning twice a week vigorously for 30-40 minutes -- for both men and women is really the key," Peeke said.

Healthful eating also helps, she said. Try to limit protein intake to lean sources of protein and avoid starches, especially after 5 p.m.

The exact role of stress in weight gain has yet to be proven, experts said, but understanding the sources of stress is key to finding relief.

Another important factor in weight gain is genetics.

Dr. Esther Sternberg, author of "The Balance Within", said the perception of whether something is stressful or not could also have a lot do with whether people getting a hold of their stress level.

Sternberg recommends people "figure out ways that you -- in your own situation -- could turn bad stress into good stress."

CNN correspondent Christy Feig contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Angry response to everyday life can cause health problems
June 17, 1996

RELATED SITES:
Dr. Pamela Peeke's Web site


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