By Mark Hyman, MD


This article originally appeared in UltraMetabolism.

The old idea that fat is just a storage depot for energy you need during starvation is fast falling away. Fat cells are now considered an endocrine organ, a part of your hormonal communication system. This fat, also called VAT (visceral adipose tissue) collects around your belly and is what makes you that apple shape.

The primary contributor to the development to of VAT is our poor quality diet filled with too many empty calories, excess consumption of sugar and processed foods, and the near absence of whole, natural healthy foods in our diet. A sedentary life, too little sleep, excess exposure to toxins and other factors also play a role.

The other major player in the development of VAT is stress. Not only are fat cells an active endocrine organ, sending messages out to the rest of the body to regulate weight, metabolism, stress hormones and inflammation, they are even wired directly to your autonomic nervous system. That means that your brain is telling them what to do without your slightest awareness or control over the process.

Prolonged, unremitting stress,i may lead to insulin resistance, diminished sex drive, and infertility. Additionally, you lose muscle mass, and your belly VAT increases making your cholesterol, blood pressure and triglycerides go up. You are more tired but your sleep is restless. You get more and more depressed. The immune system gets turned up and the inflammatory response increases, as does the rusting process, or oxidative stress. Your thyroid gets sluggish and your detoxification system gets overloaded. Without a way of counteracting the effects of chronic stress, we are all on a slippery downward slope to weight gain and ill health.

But the problems that stress causes your waistline are worse yet. Not only does your body slow down your metabolism and tell you to eat more, but the fat that you gain from being stressed out actually communicates negative messages to your body.

The body has a stereotypical way of reacting to stress, wherever it comes from and whatever form it presents itself in. As you read above, when you feel stress, your brain triggers an alarm state that sets off a series of chemical responses that slows down your metabolism and starts to store calories. A good portion of this is the VAT.

One of the main hormonal messengers that your fat creates is cortisol. Remember that cortisol is your major stress hormone. It’s responsible for setting off the entire physiological chain of events associated with stress. This includes slowing down your metabolism.

As you may be able to see by now, this whole process very quickly turns into a vicious cycle where stress and weight gain feed each other constantly. You get stressed out, your body releases cortisol that inhibits your responsiveness to leptin and slows down your metabolism. As a consequence you gain VAT. Then this VAT starts sending out more cortisol into your bloodstream starting the whole process over again.

Put simply being stressed makes you fatter, the extra fat you put on around the middle (VAT), produces more stress hormones, leading to more fat storage, leading to more stress hormones, and more fat. This turns into an even more vicious spiral when inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress come into play.

The bottom line? You need to lose the VAT if you’re going to get healthy. Following The Daniel Plan is a great way to reverse this cycle of ill health and turn it into an upward spiral toward vibrant health and lifelong wellness.

i Rosmond R, Dallman MF, Bjorntorp P. Stress-related cortisol secretion in men: relationships with abdominal obesity and endocrine, metabolic and hemodynamic abnormalities. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1998 Jun;83(6):1853-9.