Stress, exercise, aging and the metabolic syndrome

Physical activity stimulates the release of growth hormone (GH) in the body.

by Dr. Thomas Alexander — 

If a patient with insulin resistance were to ask me, “Doc, give me just one thing I can do to improve my insulin resistance,” I would probably have to say, “Exercise.”

Since the word exercise can have many negative connotations, let’s use the term physical activity instead. When we were children and went out to play, it was not something we “had to do;” rather, it was something we wanted to do.

The last thing many of my clients need is one more thing that they absolutely have to do. Many of us do not realize how pleasurable and healing physical activity actually can be. The healing effects increase when our association to physical activity is positive. So, don’t choose an activity that fills you with dread. Instead, find something that fills you with excitement that you can look forward to.

Physical activity is beneficial in many ways. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it burns calories. Additionally, it increases your metabolic rate throughout the day and continues to burn up calories even when you are finished. Intense physical activity also releases endorphins that can bring about a sense of euphoria and calm. You likely have experienced the highs of exercise at some point in your life.

The hormonal response of the body to exercise is highly underappreciated but plays a key role in its benefit. Physical activity stimulates the release of growth hormone (GH) in the body. You may have heard how our levels of this hormone decrease as we grow older. You may have even heard about the use of GH injections to restore youth. But do you know there are simple, powerful ways you can increase your levels of this important hormone of youth?

The most important ones, in addition to exercise, are good sleep and a diet with adequate amounts of protein. People with insulin resistance are also helped another way: GH releases a substance called IGF-1, which is the same molecule that insulin stimulates to bring down blood sugar levels. So by increasing GH in the body, our requirements for insulin decrease.

Stress, exercise and anabolic-catabolic balance

Our adrenals make hormones that are either catabolic or anabolic. Catabolic refers to that which causes a tearing-down of tissue, or catabolism. It generally refers to a decrease in lean tissue, particularly muscle. Anabolic refers to that which causes a building-up of tissue, or anabolism. It generally refers to an increase in lean tissue, particularly muscle.

What maintains the balance between the two is the perception of stress and of comfort or joy. When we are consumed with stress, our bodies are programmed to go into a fight-or-flight response, as was discussed in the April/May issue of AZNetNews. The most important stress hormones are adrenalin, nor-adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones break down tissues in the body to release large amounts of glucose to help it deal with the perceived danger at hand.

Today most of our stress is emotional, not physical. There are no lions to fight or raging rivers to conquer, so the body is left with extra glucose in the blood. To bring that under control, more insulin is released. Imagine continuous, ongoing stress from work or at home. This continual release of stress hormones causes a chronic breakdown of body tissues, along with a release of glucose. In addition to the problem with the high insulin, it also breaks down body proteins.

This does not mean we should avoid stressful situations. These situations can be our biggest opportunities to learn and grow. It does mean that we have to get out of chronic stress. What is chronic stress but an accumulation of dissatisfaction, fear, anger and resentment? The way to get out from under these emotions is to go to the root of what causes them.

Optimal exercise, on the other hand, has an anabolic effect on the body and builds up muscle and tissues. (Note, however, that extreme over-exercising can have the opposite effect on the body.)

DHEA: The hormone of happiness

The physiological opposite of cortisol is a hormone called DHEA. Studies are starting to show that DHEA is the hormone of peace and warmheartedness. It is secreted when stress levels are low and we are in harmony with the environment and people around us.

Many studies, including some conducted at the Institute of HeartMath in California (, have documented this association. Another study, done at the Maharishi Institute in Iowa, shows that a sustained program of meditation can increase DHEA significantly. Mind-body medicine is not just a catchy New Age term. It’s a very real connection that manifests itself in thousands of ways each day. As discussed here and in previous articles, diet and exercise are key factors in controlling aging and preventing disease. But let us not forget the huge role of our emotions and lifestyle in our health.


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Serum DHEA-S level is associated with the presence of atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Endocr J. 2008 May 21. Epub ahead of print.

Role of endogenous androgen against insulin resistance and atherosclerosis in men with type 2 diabetes. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2007 Feb;3(1):25-31. Review.

Newer approaches in increasing life span. Indian J Med Sci. 1999 Sep;53(9):390-2. Review.

Elevated serum dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate levels in practitioners of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) and TM-Sidhi Programs. J Behav Med. 1992 Aug;15(4):327-41.


Thomas Alexander, M.D., is a board-certified internal medicine doctor who now practices holistic and integrated medicine in Scottsdale, Ariz. While he has done further studies in endocrinology, his passion is looking at the whole picture. or 480-998-3551.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 4, August/September 2008.

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