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The world is getting fatter. And it’s not just people, mind you. Our pets are getting fatter. Wild animals are getting fatter. Despite living in zoos with identical diets and activity levels, the weight of chimpanzees has gone up by more than 30 percent per decade. For the first time ever, we’re seeing morbidly obese babies. What the heck is going on, anyway?
Alan Christianson, NMD, thinks he knows the answer. “There are a lot of theories out there about the cause of this global, pan-species epidemic,” he says, “but there are many cases where the theories just don’t explain what we’re seeing.” Christianson-a formerly fat kid who struggled with weight for years-believes that the answer lies in a pair of glands that are responsible for no less than 57 hormones: the adrenals.
The Stress Response
The walnut-shaped adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys. They’re most famous for making what we know as the “fight or flight” hormones-cortisol and adrenaline-which are absolutely essential to our survival. If you’re sitting on your porch enjoying the summer evening and suddenly a large bear approaches, cortisol and adrenaline will get your body ready for immediate action, causing almost instant changes in your physiology.
They get your heart racing. They shut off metabolic operations (for example, digestion) that might interfere with producing energy needed for fighting or running. The stress hormones are like a first gear for the body, turbo-charging the engine to prepare for an emergency. You’re instantly alert, primed for action. Your blood is coursing through your veins. Your blood pressure has gone up and your heart is racing, all good things if you’re about to run for your life.
But nature meant for the stress response to be used in emergencies. It’s like the nuclear option for the body-a gas pedal to be used only when there’s an immediate threat to survival. Nature did not intend for that pedal to be pressed to the metal every day, all day long. Hence the problem.
“Every regulator of appetite and weight you can find is on some kind of a circadian rhythm,” Christianson explains. And when that rhythm is disrupted-as it is for most of us most of the time-weight gain is the inevitable consequence.
According to Christianson, the adrenals have two different operating modes: thriving and surviving. “When we’re thriving, our adrenals make a controlled, regulated amount of stress hormones,” he says. “We burn fat from our bodies for energy.” But in survival mode? Not so much. “In surviving mode, the whole timing cycle is dysregulated,” he says. “We’re now taking in the same calories-but we’re making solid fat.”
For Christianson, stress isn’t limited to the emotional variety-it’s anything that disrupts the natural hormonal rhythm of our bodies. “The world has gotten more toxic, a lot noisier, and much faster-paced,” he says. “Our food has more sugar, less fiber, and many more chemicals. We spend less time in sunlight and we sleep less. We take more medications, feel less certain of our financial futures, and have fewer friends.” Plus we’re exposed to an unprecedented toxic soup of environmental pollutants, and many of these chemicals are themselves hormone disrupters. Our bodies are essentially under siege. And when we’re under a constant state of adrenal stress, our bodies burn fewer calories and store more fat.
Named a Top Doctor in Phoenix Magazine, Christianson battled excess weight as a child and was motivated to eat healthier after a classmate ridiculed him in junior high. He practices medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz. Visit drchristianson.com to learn more.
Fixing the Switch
According to Christianson, adrenal hormones control a metaphoric “switch” that essentially determines what happens to the food that you take in every day. That switch acts like a traffic cop for calories-it can direct calories to your belly fat for storage, or to your muscles for fuel. When you’re constantly stressed, the switch is permanently set to “storage” mode, and you probably feel like you gain weight just by looking at food. Losing weight? Fuggedaboudit. And even if you do lose it, you can’t keep it off.
The Adrenal Reset Diet-Christianson’s New York Times best-selling book-is a multi-dimensional program designed to get your hormones back on track. There are great tools for relaxing, great information on exercise (and, unusual for a diet book, the timing of exercise), and solid info on supplementation. The ARD uses carbs in very specific ways to help regulate cortisol, and thus get the “fat switch” unstuck from its “storage” position. One nugget from the book: think of carbs in golf ball-sized servings, with one golf ball of carbs for breakfast, two for lunch, and three for dinner.
“We gain weight because modern life disrupts our adrenal rhythms and puts us in survival mode,” explains Christianson. “But our food choices can act as a tool to reset this rhythm.”