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This Is What Actually Triggers Your Fight-Or-Flight Response

You’re probably familiar with the fight-or-flight response — your body’s physiological reaction to a perceived threat. During times of extreme fear or anxiety, certain hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are released, causing changes in your body that allow for a burst of energy and strength —enabling you to physically fight or run from the threat. Scientists discovered long ago that this innate reaction is triggered by hormones released by the adrenal glands. But according to new research, there’s another hormone that plays a major role in the fight-or-flight response that’s been completely overlooked — and it’s in your bones.

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Gerard Karsenty, a physician and geneticist at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, has been studying osteocalcin for more than two decades. Up until this time, osteocalcin has been known as a protein produced and secreted by bone. While Karsenty was investigating calcification, he found that rodents lacking osteocalcin had excess body fat and experienced difficulty breeding. While Karsenty knew that osteocalcin was abundant in the skeleton, his research led him to discover that it was also present in blood. He then proposed the idea that osteocalcin was in fact a hormone, released into the blood stream from the skeleton, to help regulate body functions.

A long series of studies helped solidify Karsenty’s theory and identify osteocalcin’s role in metabolism, muscle function and fertility. Wondering why the skeleton also acts as an endocrine organ, researchers continued digging, and came up with the hypothesis that bones evolved, in part, to help animals escape danger.

Karsenty’s team conducted a study by exposing mice and humans to stressful events, then measuring changes of osteocalcin in their blood. They found that levels of circulating osteocalcin increased by 50% in both cases, leading them to conclude that osteocalin plays a critical part in the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. Further studies showed that the hormone works by shutting down the sympathetic arm of the autonomic nervous system, to make way for another part of the nervous system to activate the fight-or-flight reaction.

As if stress isn’t complicated enough.

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