Oct. 9, 2001 As the United States prepares militarily to fight terrorism, Americans can more successfully deal with the long-term stress that may become a part of our lives by making slight adjustments in what we eat, according to an internationally known nutrition scientist.
"Small increases in the fat and protein in our diets and increasing our exercise can disrupt the body's natural tendency to deal with stress by creating fat stores and breaking down muscle," says Dr. Carolyn Berdanier, professor emerita of foods and nutrition in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia.
There are actually two stages of stress, Berndanier says. Initially, there are the hormonal cascades that cause the "fight-or-flight" reaction. But secondly, there is a much longer term stress response that includes an increase in the production of glucocorticoids.
Because the body interprets long-term stress as injury, it reacts by increasing fat as a way of increasing the amount of energy readily available. The glucocorticoids also trigger the degradation of muscle in order to make the amino acids found in muscle available for repairing the body and to create the antibodies needed to fight infection, she says.
"To suppress this shift toward creating fat, you should increase your fat intake a bit -- hopefully with polyunsaturated fats -- which will help suppress the stress response by letting the body know fat already is available," Berdanier says.
For people with particular genetic tendencies, such as toward diabetes, long-term stress can interfere with their ability to metabolize carbohydrates resulting in insulin-resistant diabetes.
"Insulin-resistant diabetes means the pancreas is producing plenty of insulin, but the body isn't able to metabolize it," Berdanier says.
"To help prevent this from occurring, people who know they're genetically predisposed to diabetes may choose to reduce their total caloric intake a bit and concentrate on consuming less sugar and more complex starches and fiber"
Increasing exercise can also help the body deal with stress.
"Exercise enhances protein synthesis, which serves to interrupt muscle breakdown," Berdanier explains. "Of course, there are other nice effects from exercise such as increasing the amount of serotonin produced by the brain which can effect appetite and mood. Again, it's important to realize everyone is different. A person with tendencies toward obesity or mood disorders may have a negative reaction to this increase in serotonin."
With a national event, such as the terrorist attacks and the possibility of war, there are no limits on who will experience long-term stress, Berdanier says.
"Firemen may not have a negative reaction to stress," she explains. "They've probably chosen their profession because their body reacts positively to stress and they have the metabolism to cope. Whereas, a university professor may find uncertainty much more stressful and may experience more negative reactions even without having an immediate role to play."
Berdanier's primary field of research interest is genetic, hormonal and nutrition interactions as related to metabolic control. She has attained international recognition for her discovery of one of the genes linked to the development of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus and has published frequently in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, the International Journal of Diabetes and Metabolism, the Journal of Environmental Pathology and Toxicology, and in the Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine, and the Proceedings of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
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