Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=181774
Story Retrieval Date: 6/19/2013 9:06:25 AM CST
Gulnaz Saiyed and Ani Vrabel/MEDILL
Despite rising obesity rates in America, some Chicagoans share how they find time to keep their waists slim and hearts healthy.
Involuntary nervous system plays role in hypertension
People know that maintaining a healthy weight goes hand-in-hand with maintaining a healthy life. But how diet and exercise interact with complex body systems is not always clear, even to doctors.
The sympathetic nervous system is one of the complex systems in the body that helps lead to weight gain, said Dr. Lewis Landsberg, director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity, in a lecture at the Robert H Lurie Medical Research Center at Northwestern University Thursday.
The sympathetic nervous system — which kicks in involuntarily during stressful situations, often stimulating the fight-or-flight response — plays a big role in how diet “regulates blood pressure and the ways the body has of dissipating energy,” he said.
“When you are obese, these mechanisms are enhanced,” and this can lead to hypertension, or high blood pressure, he said.
The sympathetic system works to keep the body in balance. So when a stimulus such as a cold environment or extra energy from more food enters the body, the nervous system reacts, causing blood pressure to increase.
High blood pressure can increase a person’s chances of heart-related complications such as stroke and heart attack.
More than one in three Americans is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This scope of obesity and obesity-related health risks pose “a major public health problem,” Landsberg said.
The research he shared comprised decades of studies on the relationship between the nervous system, obesity and hypertension.
One study he pointed to involved researchers adding junk food such as chocolate chip cookies, cocktail frankfurters and sweetened cereal to the mice’s regular food. On this diet, the animals did not eat as much of their normal food as they usually would, but they over-ate the unhealthy additions, Landsberg said.
They exposed another group of mice to cold — which sympathetic nervous system is also known to react with.
In addition to weight gain, overfeeding mice resulted in a “substantial increase” in activity from the sympathetic nervous system, much more than exposure to the cold, Landsberg said.
“Lifestyle modifications” such as maintaining a healthy body weight through exercise and diet can keep the sympathetic nervous system from having this adverse effect. This is because a lower caloric intake and burning energy through exercise manages the “energy balance equation,” he said.
Learning and practicing healthy habits are important for people with weight and heart problems, Landsberg said — but that’s not always enough. In more extreme cases, drugs are needed to help maintain a person’s appetite, blood sugar levels and cholesterol, he said.
These practical, “every-day applications” for preventing hypertension are what Susmita Sahoo, who researches cardiovascular stem cells at Northwestern, found most informative about the Landsberg’s presentation.
The changes a person makes to their own lifestyle are pivotal, but Landsberg believes bigger changes are needed before the obesity epidemic can be effectively combatted.
He said the national conversation about obesity issues are a positive change, but “there’s a major educational effort that we need to make.”
“We need to involve the food industry with proper labeling,” and make sure people in all neighborhoods have access to healthy foods, he said. Proper labeling is only effective if people are educated in how to read and interpret them, Landsberg pointed out.
Further, as a society, “we need to discourage junk food intake,” he said.
After all, a normal meal combined with supermarket cookies and processed meats didn’t turn out so great for the mice.