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Brown fat prolongs our stress response
It's well known that chronic stress is associated with a shorter and less healthy life. Until now, short-term stress was considered less harmful to health.
Scientists have discovered just how toxic short-term stress can be. It spikes diabetes.
Studies have found many health problems related to stress. For example, it worsens or increases the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma. WebMD lists 10 health problems related to stress.
Not all stress is bad. In non-life-threatening situations, stress can motivate people, such as when they need to take a test or interview for a new job. Dealing with stress helps us become more resilient - since life does not always make sense.
Acute stress is also natural and an inherent part of our survival response. In a dangerous situation, stress signals the body to prepare to face a threat or flee to safety. We can feel this physically as our heart races to pump more blood (and oxygen) to our brain and flight muscles (and directs it away from our stomach and skin, for example).
The acute stress response is triggered in part by the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones are also known to suppress inflammation, yet acute periods of stress trigger many chronic diseases into flare-ups.
This contradiction has puzzled scientists, until now.
The remarkable answer - brown fat gets involved in stress
A team at Yale University found the explanation (June 2020). They discovered that in times of stress "IL-6" was secreted in brown fat cells (which are most known for their roles in regulating metabolism and body temperature).
IL-6 is an immune system cell - "cytokine interleukin-6" - that is usually secreted in response to infections. IL-6 has also been shown to play a role in autoimmune diseases, cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety.
Researchers found that separate from responding to infections, IL-6 is secreted in response to stressful events. They found: "IL-6 was induced by stress alone and worsened inflammatory responses in the stressed animals".
How this release of stress-induced IL-6 worsened inflammation remained the outstanding question.
Having overcome their surprise that the brown fat cells were involved, they focused in on what contribution IL-6 made to our "survival response". In other words, how did it help our body prepare to escape?
What they learnt next is fascinating
The researchers discovered that IL-6 helps prepare the body to increase the production of glucose in anticipation of threats. The brown fat cell response causes IL-6 levels to peak well after the metabolic production of glucose and the release of cortisol and adrenaline.
This may explain why stress can trigger inflammation even while immune-suppressing hormones are being released, the researchers said. In other words, our body is prepared to tolerate inflammation damage in order to survive and fight another day.
This is both good, and bad.
If we need to run from a charging lion, then it is good, we can keep running further by using the extra glucose in our blood.
However, if we are not fleeing and not using our large lower limb muscles which have been primed for "fight or flight" then any prolonged spike in blood glucose has bad consequences. An unhealthy excess of blood sugar is a state of temporary diabetes.
This is the definition of diabetes from Diabetes Australia: "When someone has diabetes, their body can't maintain healthy levels of glucose in the blood. Glucose is a form of sugar which is the main source of energy for our bodies. Unhealthy levels of glucose in the blood can lead to long term and short term health complications".
If you are regularly stressed, then your blood sugar will keep spiking and will stay elevated for a while until the effect of the IL-6 wears off.
Prolonged blood sugar spikes have serious consequences
These spikes trigger the adverse inflammation observed by the researchers, which includes the typical inflammation caused by diabetes (believe me, I know, I am diabetic). For example:
Regarding Covid-19, in the UK, data spanning February to April shows people with diabetes made up approximately 25% of hospitalised cases; that’s almost four times higher than the estimated rate of diabetes in the general population. Diabetics were more likely to suffer more severely and to require intensive care. If you are over 50, and over-weight, then the odds are even more against you.
Those are all sobering consequences of inflammation in the form of spiking levels of blood sugar.
As the Diabetes Australia website says, there is currently no cure for diabetes, so it is crucial that you do everything possible to avoid developing the condition and endangering your health.
Be proactive - manage your stress
To avoid these consequences, you need to do the best you can to manage your stress.
If you take practical steps, you can reduce the risk of adverse health effects. Here are some tips that may help:
We now know that stress is a significant pre-cursor to diabetes, and diabetes is irreversibly damaging to our health.
Managing stress is as important as managing our diet and exercise in order to live longer better.
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter