Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Stress of Social Subordination

I've mentioned stress before. Psychological factors are I think under appreciated when it comes to health and fitness.

This story harks back to the ideas of Malcolm Kendrick - author of the Great Cholesterol Con - who sees the cause of heart disease as social stress rather than fat. He explained it in the videos here.

This study particularly looks at the stress of social subordination. I wonder how "natural" that condition is. Unemployment, poverty, nasty bosses, poor relationships, etc all bring such stresses

That is not how it was meant to be

New research links social stress to harmful fat deposits, heart disease

"We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic," Shively said. "Much of the excess fat in many people who are overweight is located in the abdomen, and that fat behaves differently than fat in other locations. If there's too much, it can have far more harmful effects on health than fat located in other areas."

She notes that obesity is directly related to lower socioeconomic status in Western societies, as is heart disease. So, the people who have fewer resources to buffer themselves from the stresses of life are more likely to experience such health problems, she said.

The researchers found that the stress of social subordination results in the release of stress hormones that promote the deposition of fat in the viscera. Visceral fat, in turn, promotes coronary artery atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the blood vessels that leads to heart disease, the leading cause of death in the world today.


pieter d said...

Hello, first time poster, long time reader.

Thanks for the post Chris. It would be interesting to see what happens in monkeys that get to eat their more 'natural' diet, and then are subjected to the stressors of social subordination.


Chris said...

Hi Pieter. I tend to think that the stress would trump the diet. I think psychological factors are more important than we realise.

kieraninmotion said...

Good to see studies like this, stress is vastly understood by the general public as well as a number of professionals. Psychologically, this is an area I am interested in. There are a lot of good books about stress and social settings which you may be interested in. I'll have a look for you.

pieter d said...


As a physical therapist, seeing only people with musculoskeletal problems (meaning back and neck pain most of the times), I agree that stress is really important.

Do you think, that people with normal, intermittent stress levels (the natural kind) can somehow get away with a lesser diet?

This could explain (together with other and similar variables such as sleep, play, ...) why some people, present or past, have good health, withour really eating things that are healthy (e.g. to much carbs, grains, ...)

I'm also curious wether the reason for being low in social status (in monkeys) tells us something about health, 'good genes' (in a survival of the fittest way).

Chris said...

Pieter - interesting thoughts.

unconnected thoughts in response:

I do think that there is a huge placebo effect in life: training diet an more. If you think something is good for you then often it will be.

People with low stress levels I think can get away with a lot - a healthy attitude and outlook can keep you healthy.

maybe a low social status is a result of being less fit in an evolutionary sense. Sad in that not only are you less fit, you are less healthy and also more stressed.

The size of the tribe is also important. In ancestral lives we would have had fewer people to compare ourselves with and feel bad about.

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...


I agree that psychological stress is an underlying cause of a lot of health problems in modern society. Robert Sapolsky's "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" is a well-written, interesting guide to stress physiology. Interestingly enough, he has lots of data on humans and primates. Bottom line, the stress response is extremely helpful short-term, however, long-term it causes all sorts of problems. I definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in health and fitness.

Anonymous said...

This is a horrible crutch to give people to lean on. The article about the study states that the monkeys were fed a "Western-style diet" AND "housed in groups so they would naturally establish a pecking order from dominant to subordinate." The more subordinate monkeys developed symptoms of poor health. Do more subordinate monkeys develop poorer health than dominant monkeys when fed their normal diet? If so, to what degree? The health problems seem to be a combination of stress AND diet. People, like monkeys, will always have stresses regardless of the environment in which they live. Pieter makes a good point. While stress is no doubt a factor in poor health, what is more powerful is the easy access to foods with low nutrient density (high calories) and the tendency of people with high stress to eat these "feel good" foods. Getting everybody into a low-stress environment is simply not realistic.

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