Researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, North Carolina tested the hypothesis that there is a link between belly fat, social stress and atherosclerosis. Their published study of female monkeys appears in the journal Obesity and demonstrates how social stress causes increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. This, in turn, causes belly fat to accumulate, individual fat cells to get larger, and can result in metabolic syndrome and heart disease.1 2
The subjects of the study were 41 socially housed female monkeys that ate a high fat diet for 32 months. The females with high visceral and abdominal fat were socially isolated, received more aggression and less grooming, desensitized to circulating glucocorticoids (steroid hormones that inhibit inflammation), had impaired ovarian function, higher heart rates late in the day, and more atherosclerosis than monkeys with low belly fat.1
In an online article, Carol A. Shively, PhD, the study’s lead researcher said, “We wanted to know more about how the stress outside of you gets turned into plaque inside of your arteries, so we looked at why stress caused atherosclerosis in our monkeys.”3
The study included a CT scan to detect visceral fat, which usually appears as a “beer belly” on the outside. On the inside, the fat wraps around the organs. According to Shively, it’s not how much fat you have that makes the difference, but where it is located.3
A Time Magazine cover story about exercise (“The Myth About Exercise”) asserts that exercise doesn’t help you lose weight because people who exercise usually end up eating about 100 extra calories per day. If that is indeed true, it’s doubly important to maintain a healthy diet … and monitor your stress levels. One way is by taking magnolia extract.
Magnolia extract reduces stress and cortisol levels
Since honokiol and magnolol, the main constituents in magnolia, have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years to treat a variety of mental disorders, most of the scientific studies on the herb have been done in China. Hundreds of studies have shown that these two extracts produce a non-addictive, non-sedating, anti-anxiety and anti-stress effect.
Another study done at the School of Life Sciences, Nanjing University, China reported on the antidepressant-like effects of honokiol and magnolol in models of depression in rodents. The extracts reduced elevated cortisol levels to normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hyperactivity in the chronic mild stress (CMS) rats.4
Psychological stress produces changes in the sympathetic-parasympathetic balance of the nervous system and alterations of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which negatively affects the cardiovascular system.5
In a 24-week Italian study of menopausal women, the 44 women who took 60 mg. of magnolia extract and 50 mg. of magnesium experienced less insomnia, anxiety, depression and irritability.6
Cortisol is called the stress hormone because excess cortisol is secreted when we are under a lot of stress. Additionally, the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (with levels highest in the early morning and lowest at night) can be altered. This disruption of cortisol secretion can promote weight gain, and can also affect fat distribution, as seen in the study of the female monkeys.1 And abdominal fat accumulation is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease.
Magnolia extract supplementation is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety, while trying to stave off the “beer belly” that can lead to metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis and ultimately heart disease.
- Shively, C., Register, T., Clarkson, T. Obesity 2009 Aug;17(8):1513-20. Epub 2009 Mar 26. Social Stress, Visceral Obesity, and Coronary Artery Atherosclerosis in Female Primates.
- Shively CA, Register TC, Clarkson TB. Social stress, visceral obesity, and coronary artery atherosclerosis: product of a primate adaptation. Am J Primatol. 2009 Sep;71(9):742-51.
- DeNoon, Daniel, “Stress Raises Belly Fat, Heart Risks.”
- Xu Q, Yi LT, Pan Y, Wang X, Li YC, Li JM, Wang CP, Kong LD Antidepressant-like effects of the mixture of honokiol and magnolol from the barks of Magnolia officinalis in stressed rodents. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2008 Apr 1;32(3):715-25. Epub 2007 Nov 28.
- Brotman DJ, Golden SH, Wittstein IS. The cardiovascular toll of stress. Lancet. 2007 Sep 22;370(9592):1089-100.
- Mucci M, Carraro C, Mancino P, Monti M, Papadia LS, Volpini G, Benvenuti C. Soy isoflavones, lactobacilli, Magnolia bark extract, vitamin D3 and calcium. Controlled clinical study in menopause. Minerva Ginecol. 2006 Aug;58(4):323-34.