Metabolic Effects of Stress

As the autonomic nervous system prepares the tense person for the battles or retreats of modern living, it also alters the metabolism so that the muscles are supplied with energy. Crucial to metabolism in all cells is insulin, which allows sugar to be metabolized, thereby providing necessary energy. This is exactly why the tense, anxious person is often sweet-toothed or alchohol-loving. Alchohol, even without the mixer, is rich in sugars, and they have a high glycemic index - that is to say, the sugar is readily absorbed into the circulation.

The result of the blood sugar rising rapidly after a couple of gin and tonics and a Mars bar is that the pancreas needs to produce additional insulin so that the blood sugar level may return closer to its normal level. Unfortunately, the pancreas always overreacts, producing a surfeit of insulin, and the blood sugar subsequently falls below its pre-snack level. Every cell in the human body is influenced by insulin. If this cycle is repeated, the body's cells are so frequently bombarded by insulin that they begin to develop insulin resistance. This can lead to the condition known as the metabolic syndrome.

The pancreas, the body's insulin factory, can only produce so much insulin. Initially production goes up to meet demand, but the amount of insulin is not limitless. In time, the combination of insulin-resistance in the tissues and an overworked and failing pancreas results in real or relative insulin deficiency and the development of what is called Type II (or sometimes maturity-onset) diabetes.

Diabetes

To what extent Type II diabetes is a direct consequence of stress and what extent it is the indirect consequence of a stressed person's over­indulgence in comfort eating is uncertain. But, whatever the mechanics of the process, stressed people often put on weight and often develop Type II diabetes as a result of their tense lives.

In time, the metabolic syndrome develops, and with it, Type II diabetes that leads to dangerously high levels of cholesterol, including the pernicious low-density-lipoprotein (otherwise known as LDL) cholesterol, kidney disease, neuropathy (nerve damage), diseases of the eye, including retinopathy and increased incidence of cataracts. In women, the metabolic syndrome may result in obesity, hirsutism (bodily hairiness), male pattern baldness, acne and ovarian cysts. These women also have other gynaecological problems, such as scant periods, irregular ovulation and infertility. There is also, in both sexes, an increased risk of heart and vascular diseases.

Although there is a strong genetic factor determining the likely development of the metabolic syndrome, much can be done to make certain that this genetic tendency isn't expressed. People are less likely to develop it - whoever their parents are - if they keep their weight down. Therefore a woman's waist measurement should be under thirty-two inches, and a man's under forty inches. The other crucial preventative factor is regular exercise.

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