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What to do when evolution is working against you. Hint: being aware helps Tim Chambers was just shy of 300 pounds when a heart attack scare ...




What to do when evolution is working against you. Hint: being aware helps

Tim Chambers was just shy of 300 pounds when a heart attack scare sent him to the ER. The web developer from Bethesda, Md., had been putting on pounds ever since he entered the working world and held a series of sedentary jobs at internet and computer-game companies. Sitting in the hospital—after fainting on the commuter train while heading home from work—was a “wake-up call” for Chambers, who had had limited success losing weig ht in the past. “I lost 30 to 40 pounds three or four times in a row,” says Chambers. “But then work would become stressful again, and the weight would come back, usually higher.”

Stories such as Chambers’s are familiar to Rachel Goldman, a Manhattan psychologist who specializes in weight management and stress reduction. When we are under stress, “our health behaviors are the first thing to go,” says Goldman. “We say, ‘I don’t have time to make it to the gym. I don’t have time to make healthy food.’ ” Our overscheduled, fast-paced lives often win out over our best intentions.

But research has uncovered a much deeper interaction, one that goes back to our oldest ancestors and shows how the very system designed to help them survive could be threatening our own health. For years, studies have shown a connection between high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva, urine, or blood and being overweight, but a study published in 2017 presented some of the most compelling evidence that long-term stress is connected to being overweight. Sarah Jackson, a principal  research fellow in the department of behavioral science and health at the University College London, measured cortisol levels in hair. “By using hair samples to measure cortisol, we were able to get a better sense of average cortisol levels over a prolonged period,” says Jackson. Her research showed “a link between longer-term stress and weight, body mass index, waist circumference, and abdominal obesity,” says Jackson. “Exposure to this  hormone is associated with greater body fatness.”

Discovering how cortisol influences weight gain—and attempting to interrupt that process—is another important area of research and the life’s work of Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, a Pew Foundation Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, and the author of The Hunger Fix. It all comes back to the fight-or-flight response.

Evolution designed our bodies to produce instant energy when we are under threat. Our bodies break down both fat and glucose from the liver to use as fuel and circulate it throughout the body “so that you’ve got everything you need to run or beat the hell out of a predator,” says Peeke. At the same time, our body is depositing fat in the safest place possible to have energy later—under our abdominal muscles. “It’s the most precious fat depot in the human body, and your body wants to protect it for survival,” she explains. After a fight for your life is over, your body is primed to replenish the calories lost during it, and “you get a cortisol-stimulated appetite to be able to refill the calories your body assumes you’ve expended,” explains Peeke.

It’s all a “beautiful response,” she adds. For a caveperson, that is. This system keeps them safe from danger and helps them enjoy berries after a long run away from a predator without gaining weight. For a modern-day desk jockey, the system is less helpful. Stressors like mounting deadlines and climbing interest rates leave us revved up and fist deep in the office candy bowl. And it becomes a vicious cycle: Your body stores more fat deep in your tissues—where it likes to stay put—and you end up eating more.

“What you have is fabulous primal software that is being used inappropriately in today’s 21st-century world,” says Peeke. “And we have so many metabolic consequences from that dysfunction, including the No. 1 disordered eating pattern—binge eating.”

What’s more, rather than living a life punctuated by the threat of a saber-toothed tiger, many of us live a life of lesser but continuous stresses. It’s something our bodies were not designed to handle. “When our body never gets out of that fight-or-flight mode, it becomes chronic stress,” says Goldman.

You may not realize the impact stress is having on you. “Most people are walking around with ridiculously high levels of stress hormones and don’t even know it,” says Peeke. And our body’s primal reward system pushes us toward one of two things to soothe itself: sex or food. Sex is scarce in our modern workaday world, but vending machines? Plentiful.

And here’s why we call the high-fat, high-calorie foods in them “comfort foods.” When we eat them, our cortisol levels decrease and we feel a sense of relief. In fact, says Peeke, “people who overeat under stress actually feel a drug-related anesthesia.” That sounds—and probably feels—pretty good. The problem is that it is short-lived, she adds: “You just ate a load of sugar, your insulin levels skyrocketed, and now you have all of these metabolic consequences.”

This kind of stress eating, which anyone can fall prey to, might lead to your typical middle-age weight gain of 20 to 30 pounds. But genetics and life experiences can turn stress eating into addictive eating, with much more serious weight and health consequences. There are many genes—ones related to addiction, metabolism, diabetes, depression, and anxiety—that factor into a propensity to overeat or gain weight. When they interact with negative experiences in childhood, the effect can be exponential. According to research from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, children who experience the chronic stress of abuse—verbal or physical—or have other traumatic incidents in their childhood are more likely to end up overweight or obese. Early on, says Peeke, they have few outlets to manage their stress, so they often turn to food, developing a brain-body feedback loop that can actually alter their genes’ messaging to predispose them to addictive eating.

In fact, the first study to examine the connection between child abuse and food addiction, published in the journal Obesity in 2013, found that for women, a history of any kind of abuse led to a 90 percent increase in the risk of developing a food addiction.

But lesser events can also put you at risk for stressrelated weight gain. “Stress is in the eyes of the beholder,” says Peeke. “The guy sitting at the desk with all those deadlines? In his brain, he is under ridiculous strain. You don’t need a building to fall on your head to develop addictive-like eating behaviors—they fall on a spectrum.”

And that spectrum is where Tim Chambers found himself after his health scare. “It is easy when you are stressed out to only worry about getting through that day,” says Chambers. “It’s very easy to have a shortterm mindset.”

Sitting in that hospital room, Chambers changed his. He decided to make three lifestyle changes that he could track every day—exercise, sleep, and food—to create a “chain” of healthy behavior. “If I would get enough sleep, get 10,000 steps, eat within my allotted calories, and go to the gym three or four times a week, that was not breaking the chain,” says Chambers. “I would try to go for the longest period I could without breaking it. If I did break it, I would just pick it back up again.” In two years, he lost 115 pounds, which he has kept off ever since.

Chambers’s four-point plan hits several of the suggestions Goldman gives her clients: “Water intake, food intake, movement, sleep, and stress.”

To reduce stress, Goldman recommends having at least three adaptive coping mechanisms that you can actually see yourself doing in times of stress—such as cooking, cleaning, deep breathing, calling a friend, taking a walk, or taking a bath. “If you are participating in daily coping mechanisms, it’s much easier to bring your stress level back to baseline,” she says.

For people who have a history of trauma, Peeke recommends finding a therapist—a psychologist or a licensed social worker—who has certifications in trauma-based work. It also helps to equip yourself with techniques that can fill in for that 20-minute run from the woolly mammoth. “One of the best things you can do to calm the storm—bar none—is meditation,” says Peeke. “We’ve done tremendous epigenetic studies, and what we’ve found is that regular meditators have a decrease in both the level of stress hormone as well as in the expression of inflammatory genes. The result is better control of overeating and weight gain. Literally, you dial it down. How cool is that?

“Go for meditative walks, meditative runs, bring on yoga. How about tai chi? Do the kinds of physical activity where you have a chance to get lost in it,” she adds. “When I’m in the pool doing laps, nobody is bothering me. It is exquisitely meditative.” That combo “will be able to reverse so much of what’s taking place in both your mind and body.”

But it won’t happen overnight, shares Chambers. “You have to have a sense that if I go for a really long walk right now or if I go to the gym and work rather than just eat, it will be better for me. What’s tough is that it’s not instant gratification like eating, but as you get through the things that are stressing you, and you look back, it helps you have more belief in it the next time.”

Chambers’s faith and patience have helped him create his own brain-to-body feedback loop, this time a positive one. He has kept the weight off, and he reports that while his “external stressors are about the same as they’ve always been, my management of them has been different than it has been my entire adult life.”