Are you frequently exposed to stress due to work or school, conflicts with family or friends, or even while sitting impatiently in a traffic jam? Although such situations may seem harmless, with prolonged and repeated exposures these simple stressors can set off a progressive cascade of events leading to unhealthy weight gain, poor health and, ultimately, disease.
How Stress Affects the Body
In stressful situations, the body responds by releasing a powerful steroid hormone called cortisol. Under normal circumstances, cortisol functions in providing the body with enough energy to cope with day-to-day challenges. However, problems arise when you’re stressed out every day, all the time.
Cortisol has a specific role in physically preparing the body for any and all situations that are perceived as ‘dangerous’, whether life-threatening or not. This means that your cortisol levels can become elevated from something as simple as a flight delay to something as life changing as a death in the family.
Interestingly enough, although such stressful situations are distinct, they each elicit similar bodily responses. Unfortunately, cortisol causes five key changes in the body that can ultimately lead to unhealthy weight gain and other health problems:
1. Breaks down muscle protein while decreasing amino acid uptake by muscles. These effects can cause severe muscle wasting and potentially slow the metabolic rate (the rate at which you burn calories). Collectively, these changes can greatly contribute to body fat accumulation and weight gain.
2. Increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream (hyperglycemia). Prolonged elevations in blood sugar can trigger insulin resistance, a condition in which the body doesn’t properly respond to the blood glucose lowering effects of insulin. Hyperglycemia and insulin resistance are classic risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
3. Promotes visceral (belly) fat accumulation. Cortisol-induced insulin resistance is a major underlying cause of belly fat. When insulin isn’t properly regulated it converts excess blood sugar into fat for primary storage in the visceral area. Visceral fat accumulation itself is an independent risk factor for numerous chronic diseases.
4. Elevates LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream. Increases in LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fat in the blood) promote the development of high cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia). Furthermore, buildup of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides can lead to plaque formations in your arteries (atherosclerosis) that cause heart attacks and strokes.
5. Causes the body to retain sodium and water. Sodium (salt) and water retention can lead to unnecessary weight gain and high blood pressure (hypertension), due to extra fluid in the blood vessels. Hypertension greatly increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure.
How to Avoid the Negative Effects of Stress
If you are frequently exposed to stress you’re definitely at risk of cortisol-related weight gain and chronic diseases. The risk of health problems is further exacerbated if you engage in unhealthy behaviors when stressed (cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, and binge eating).
Personally, I tend to be an emotional eater when stressed (“Eating Without a Conscience: My Personal Battle with Food Addiction”). As such, when confronted with everyday hassles, I ignore those urges to eat by putting on my tennis shoes and getting in a workout. Here are five strategies that I personally recommend.
1. Lifting Weights
Weight training provides an outlet by which you can channel your stress, as doing so significantly heightens the levels of endorphins and other ‘feel good’ hormones in the body. When coupled with a well-balanced diet of high-quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein, lifting weights also prevents cortisol-associated muscle wasting thereby preserving the metabolic rate.
2. Performing Intense Cardio Exercise
When performed at a high enough intensity, a 20-minute bout of cardiovascular (cardio) exercise increases endorphin levels to a much greater extent than an hour-long session of low-intensity cardio. By intense I mean hill or stair climbing, running or very intense walk/run intervals, cycling at very high speeds, cardio kickboxing or other intense group-exercise formats, and timed-lap swimming.
3. Monitoring Your Carb Intake
Haphazardly consuming carbohydrates (carbs) triggers elevations in cortisol levels. This especially holds true for refined “simple” carbs (white flour and rice, regular pasta, cakes, pies, pastries, candy and soda). Since simple carbs are comprised of sugar, consuming them leads to intense insulin surges followed by marked crashes in blood glucose. The body treats this response as a ‘stressor’, which causes cortisol levels to rise.
4. Being Spontaneously Active
Taking the stairs throughout the day in place of the elevator, parking as far as possible from a destination, or just implementing periodic walks all constitute spontaneous forms of physical activity and they are highly effective for stress management. As a teenager, I’d often come home from school with stress-related mood swings and my mother would immediately tell me to “Get out and go for a walk”. When I returned, she’d look at me with a grin and ask: “Now, don’t you feel better?” I always did.
5. Engaging in Mind-Body Exercises
Mind-body exercises like Tai Chi and Pilates are extremely beneficial for relieving stress, as they are known to greatly reduce cortisol levels. In addition, implementing such activities can lead to improvements in balance, posture, and core stability. Yoga and meditation are also useful for stress relief, especially prior to bedtime. Opt for gentle yoga poses and stretching and follow that up with 5-15 minutes of deep meditation.
To reduce the likelihood of unwanted weight gain, belly fat, and other health problems, it’s important to find productive ways of coping with stress. Although stress is oftentimes inevitable, incorporating these five strategies can greatly reduce its overall impact on the body.