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It's Only Natural: Our Innate Response to Stress continued...

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"But when was the last time you responded to stress with such physicality?" Peeke asks. In today's modern world, this elegant survival mechanism may be an anachronism that causes the body to refuel when it doesn't need to.

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Yet, it's not just quick, unsettling episodes that can prove problematic, says Peeke. Feeling stressed-out over a long period of time may be fattening, too: Sustained stress keeps cortisol, that cursed hunger promoter, elevated and that keeps the appetite up, too.

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And there's another factor as well. If stress and cortisol levels stay high, so will insulin levels, says Robert M. Sapolsky, PhD, a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University. "The net effect of this will be increased fat deposition in a certain part of the body."

Middle Management

And that body part generally is the waistline. A recent study conducted by researchers at Yale University and published in the September 2000 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine compared 30 women who stored fat primarily in their abdomens with 29 women who stored it mostly in their hips. They found that the women with belly fat reported feeling more threatened by stressful tasks and having more stressful lives. They also produced higher levels of cortisol than the women with fat on their hips. And that, the authors reasoned, suggests that cortisol causes fat to be stored in the center of the body.

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Peeke's own work points to another reason stressed-out women may store fat in the abdomen. "Our research has shown that the fat cells deep in the belly are richer in stress hormone receptors than fat cells elsewhere in the body," Peeke says. "And it makes sense that fat would be stored in the abdomen, close to the liver, where it can be quickly accessed for conversion into energy."

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That may not only be distressing for some women, but dangerous: A Harvard Medical School study published in the December 1998 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association found that abdominal fat was strongly associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

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