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Q&A with Mehmet Oz: Don't Let the Finance Crisis Become a Health Crisis

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In this interview, medical expert Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks with Cue Ball's Tony Tjan on how the financial crisis is shaving years off of lives, and what you can do about it. Dr. Oz is Professor and Vice Chairman of Surgery at Columbia University, a world-renowned cardiologist, New York Times best-selling author, and Oprah's medical expert.

Tony Tjan: In this uncertain economy, what are some real health concerns we have to watch out for?

Dr. Mehmet Oz: Chronic stress and its side effects are the biggest cause for concern. Acute stress is temporary and event driven, like what you feel if the market is down for the day, or if you almost get in a car accident - while scary, it doesn't pose a big issue to your health.

Financial stress, though, is a chronic type of stress. It therefore is similar to the kind of persistent stress our ancestors felt from famine. Instead of responding with the normal fight-or-flight hormones, like epinephrine and norepinephrine, your body has to deal with a more low-level, constant stress and responds with steroids, like cortisol.

What is a good example of how stress manifests itself?

Obesity is the best example of all. A thousand years ago, when famine was the only driver of chronic stress, our ancestors responded by increasing the amount of cannabinoids, whose name comes from cannabis, in their body. These receptors are the same ones stimulated by pot and make you want to eat more. Chronic stress elicits the same famine-adapted response: you release more cannabinoids, and also more steroids, which are soaked up by omentum, that belly fat layer that causes a big waistline.

And you have repeatedly warned about watching your belly fat as an early warning sign to heart disease and...

As that fat grows, it comes alive and does three things:

1. Puts pressure on your kidneys, and the kidneys, which regulate blood pressure, elevate your blood pressure because they need more blood.

2. Poisons your liver, so you get more of that lousy LDL cholesterol and less of the healthy HDL cholesterol.

3. Blocks the effect of insulin on muscle, so you are prone to diabetes.

What's your rule of thumb for watching our weight and belly fat?

Check your waist size with a tape measure: it should be no more than one half your height.

Any other tests we should be monitoring carefully?

Blood pressure. If you don't know your blood pressure, it's like not knowing the value of your company. It's the number one cause of aging, and you should check it once a quarter. Get a reader for your home or office. They only cost about $25.

We all know that we should test for blood pressure. But give us the rationale behind that again.

Blood pressure tells you about the effect of omentum fat, and it also tells you about subconscious effects of chronic stress. If you have chronic stress, your arteries are all going to be a little bit tighter. But there are ways to deal with this. People with high blood pressure have repeatedly shown that biofeedback can reduce blood pressure without medication.

How else does stress negatively impact people?

Sleep. When there is a psyche-disrupting event in your life, it can prevent you from getting the long blocks of sleep at night that are so important to healthy aging. Unfortunately, half of us over the age of fifty do not get normal sleep: 7 hours for females and 7.5 hours for males.

So what can we do to sleep better?

Four things:

1. Dim the lights a half hour before going to bed. Our ancestors' bodies would release melatonin, which makes you sleepy and drowsy, after the sun went down.

2. Wear loose-fitting clothes to sleep.

3. Sleep in a cool environment.

4. Invest in a high quality mattress that doesn't trap heat.

People are feeling a lot of anger right now in the world. How should we deal with that?

Anger is not necessarily a problem. It's a natural response to crisis, and you shouldn't tell an angry person to calm down. The opposite of anger is not calmness, its empathy.
Hostility, which is different from anger, is a problem. Hostility comes from loneliness, from not seeing yourself like a drop falling into the ocean of humanity like everyone else.
The fundamental solution to all of this is empathy, which involve "mirror neurons." These structures allow us to see what others are doing and appreciate and mimic it. You need to have the ability to put yourself in someone else's position and see the world from their perspective.

Could you summarize the ways people can cope with increased chronic stress?

Sure: Get better sleep, exercise regularly, watch your diet, and use your social network to deal with problems that arise. You also need a quick fix stress reducer. For me, it's deep breathing. I take deep yoga belly breaths: inhale while pushing your stomach out and then exhale while sucking your stomach in.

This article first appeared on Harvard Business Publishing on March 17th, 2009.