Let’s answer some questions about stress and what happens to the body when it’s under stress:
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s physical, mental, or emotional response to certain stressors, like change, challenge, anticipation, or perception of a threat. The biological response prepares the body for “fight-or-flight” by releasing large amounts of chemicals which include adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol (known as the “stress hormone”). When this happens, blood moves to muscles to ready the body for attack, and away from internal organs, slowing the digestive system. This also creates changes like an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate.
Is cortisol good or bad for us?
Cortisol is produced by adrenal glands to regulate metabolism and blood pressure. Cortisol is also useful for immune response, wound healing, and electrolyte balance. It has beneficial effects on memory and mood and is released during physical and mental stress. Also released during high-intensity exercise, it increases production of glucose and free fatty acids for energy. Cortisol and dopamine combine to create a satisfying feeling during exercise.
Too much cortisol can create negative effects and alterations in cells and tissues. Over time, the excessive increase in cortisol levels from chronic stress creates elevated blood sugar levels and insulin resistance which increases risk of obesity. The added release of free fatty acids can clog arteries or relocate from blood circulation to storage as visceral fat, typically located in the internal abdominal area. These changes also increase hunger feelings and reduce feelings of satiation, causing weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
With the negative problems that excessive cortisol creates in the body, it adds more stress, which continues increased cortisol production (vicious cycle). Some other functions impacted include immune system, sleep, fertility, gastrointestinal system, and cognition, among others, like weight gain. The results could include hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (elevated lipids), and hyperglycemia (elevated glucose).
So, cortisol is problematic when it’s chronically too high or low. For the cortisol levels to return to normal, there needs to be time for recovery (lack of stress).
What other ways can stress cause weight gain?
Along with the issues associated with chronically-increased cortisol levels, stress can prompt other disruptions that can cause weight gain. Anxiety can trigger emotional eating (and overeating) and cravings for unhealthy comfort foods. “Mindless” eating also occurs in anxious times, as people have overwhelming thoughts and don’t concentrate on what they’re eating or how it tastes. Comfort foods are typically unhealthy and empty calories, like processed foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium.
Sleep disturbances and insomnia are common with chronic stress. The mind is overactive with racing or endless thoughts and doesn’t shut down during sleep. In some cases, people fuel their exhausted bodies with caffeine, which can disrupt sleep even more. Without adequate sleep, our bodies aren’t producing enough leptin (fullness hormone) and overproducing ghrelin (hunger hormone) which control appetite. Ultimately, this causes weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
How can we take action against stress and weight gain?
Fortunately, there are several ways to assist in controlling stress and its associated weight gain. For sustainable results that have been shown to be effective, choose healthy techniques, like these:
1. Exercise: Aerobic and Anaerobic exercise has been proven successful for reducing stress and fat.
2. Mindfulness: Practice mind & body exercises, like Meditation, Deep Breathing, Visualization, Yoga, and Tai Chi.
3. Eating Right: Your food should fuel your body properly with fresh foods full of vitamins and minerals, lean proteins to support muscle growth and repair, complex carbohydrates to give the body energy, and healthy fats to provide cell growth, hormone production, and absorption of nutrients.
4. Get Enough Sleep: The recommended sleep for adults is 7-9 hours per day.
To help with weight management, try self-monitoring, by tracking eating habits to be more aware of foods, portion sizes, mood and time of day. Avoid “mindless” eating and stay away from distractions while eating, like watching TV. Use your support system of family and friends or utilize a buddy system for moral support to create encouragement and keep your environment and household full of healthy foods. Online social support also provides a community of people with similar goals and struggles, as well as motivation and inspiration. Additionally, professional help from a fitness professional, nutritionist, or mental health specialist can offer specific guidance and solutions.
Conclusion: Can we be “Stress-free”?
Since stress is part of our daily lives, we can never be without it completely. It’s still a necessity to challenge our bodies, physically and mentally. Cortisol has important roles in our bodies, but too much will create damage and can lead to many problems. The key is to learn healthy habits to manage excessive or chronic stress and create balance for your mind and your hormones. Though it may take time to adopt new coping strategies and a healthier lifestyle, even a small step is progress. We can’t be stress-free, but we can be balanced.
In upcoming blog posts, I’ll get even more specific with strategies to deal with stress and weight management, including what’s worked well for me, what didn’t work at all, and why. Until next time, SMASH your goals! - Ash
1. “Cortisol: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” by Susan M. Kleiner (https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/february-2016/5794/cortisol-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly)
2. “How Psychologists Help with Weight Management” American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/weight-control.aspx)