Stress is simply a part of life. Stress can be a positive thing: It can save your life in a fight or flight situation, or it can be the kick in the butt you need to finally finish that project at work you’ve been putting off. Too much stress, however, can have a negative effect on your mental and physical health. In today’s society, where we are moving faster, taking on more responsibility and are constantly technologically connected to the demands of work and home, our lives are becoming more overwhelming, and it may be taking a toll on our waistlines.
Cortisol, dubbed the “stress hormone”, is an important hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, responsible for many functions in the body including regulating metabolism and blood pressure, immune function, inflammatory response, and releasing insulin, which maintains blood sugar levels.
Cortisol isn’t only secreted when the body is under stress, but it is secreted in higher levels during the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress (think of when something pops out and scares the crap out of you. That surge you get is your body’s fight or flight response- you either jump and run, or start swinging.) The stress we encounter on a daily basis isn’t always so obvious or sudden, but daily stress, i.e. a jam packed schedule the next day or not knowing how you are going to afford next month’s bills, isn’t immediately remedied, so your stress levels stay elevated for an extended period of time until the stressor is remedied, or more often than not, until another stressor comes along and takes over.
Just as with everything in life, too much of something is never a good thing. Elevated cortisol levels cause many physical, negative changes to the body, including impaired cognitive function, blood sugar imbalances, high blood pressure, and lower immunity, causing you to feel slow and drained of energy, or even come down with an illness.
This is why when you are stressed, you may experience redness in your face, neck and ears due to higher blood pressure, increased appetite due to out of whack blood sugar levels and just generally sluggish and irritable.
Perhaps the most frustrating side effect of elevated cortisol levels, however, is weight gain. Physically, your appetite may increase causing you to overeat, which is often referred to as stress eating or emotional eating, but of course, if you don’t eat the calories, then you won’t gain the weight- simple solution. The deeper culprit to weight gain is that cortisol can decrease your muscle tissue, which will slow your metabolism, causing you to burn less calories in a day and an increase in belly fat, which not only isn’t attractive, it carries a host of health risks all its own.
Increased abdominal fat is more dangerous to your health than fat deposits in other areas of your body. Excess belly fat puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, high cholesterol and metabolic syndrome.
Lower Your Stress Levels with a Healthy Lifestyle
Most of your stressors can’t simply be eliminated by delegating out your responsibilities or avoiding the situation completely, so finding ways to cope with your stress is the most practical way to keep your cortisol levels down. Fortunately, the best ways to reduce stress are also good for your health.