Have you heard someone mention “stress eating?” Stress has many effects on the body, some directly effecting cravings, portion sizes, and the way your body metabolizes your food. While for some, stress may temporarily decrease appetite, in the long term, it can boost your hunger.
When under a lot of pressure, our body’s can resort to it’s “fight or flight” response. Your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with stress, even if you haven’t, and as a result thinks you need to replenish those calories (even though you don’t).
Levels of our stress hormone, cortisol, rise during stressful times. In Paleolithic times, “stress” was often a physical stress, like being chased by a predator. The release of cortisol was essential in preparing our bodies for action. Cortisol increases alertness and decreases the need for sleep, while periodically stopping or slowing down other mechanisms such as digestion and metabolism. This stimulates gluconeogenesis, the process of creating glucose cells for our body to use as energy, and stimulation of fat and amino acid breakdown. While this was beneficial ages ago, our stresses now typically do not require bursts of energy for survival, but rather increase our drive for more energy merely to be stored and unused.
When first looking at the role of insulin and cortisol, it appears they have opposite effects. Insulin is used as a storage hormone—the body stores energy in the form of glycogen in muscles, and fat. Cortisol, prepares the body for action which moves energy out of stores and into readily available forms, glucose. While this is in fact an opposite effect on weight gain effects for short term, this is very different for long-term psychological stress. Under conditions of chronic stress, such as problems at work, sleep deprivation, etc., blood glucose can remain elevated for months, increasing our insulin release. Chronically high cortisol levels lead to sustained increased insulin.
Since insulin is one of the main drivers of obesity, there is no shock that chronically high stress levels are related to both an increase in BMI and abdominal obesity. Not only does this cause an increase in fat storage, but can lead to insulin resistance causing type II diabetes down the road.
There are many ways we can help ourselves deal with stress. Find some of the best ways to reduce stress and increase happiness below:
- Exercise: Exercise lowers your body’s stress hormones — such as cortisol — in the long run. It also helps release endorphins, which are chemicals that improve your mood and act as natural painkillers.
- Reduce caffeine intake: People have different thresholds for how much caffeine they can tolerate. If you notice that caffeine makes you jittery or anxious, consider cutting back.
- Spend time with friends & family: spending time with friends and children helps release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever. This effect is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Another study found that men and women with the fewest social connections were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.
- Practice Mindfulness: There are several methods for increasing mindfulness, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga and meditation.
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