Taking Strain? Frazzled? Tense? Worried? Overloaded? Stress comes in many forms and consequently is triggered by many things from our fast-paced lives, complete with long working hours and tight deadlines to improvising as the circus clown juggling careers and children all while dealing with relationship and financial woes. It’s a jungle out there!
Not all stress is harmful, in fact stress is actually a good thing for helping us deal with immediate issues. Like defending yourself in a fight or surviving an accident or, if you’re a cave man, staving off a sabre-toothed tiger. Situations where you find yourself in immediate physical danger trigger the adrenal glands to secrete the “fight or flight” hormones – adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol.
Day to day stressors are somewhat different. Our fast-paced high pressure lives mean that the majority of people struggle with long-term stress. Which in the long run can have disastrous effects on our health.
How stress can make us fat.
Stress triggers the release of adrenaline which keeps us focused (on the danger) followed by cortisol which works by increasing sugar and fat levels in the bloodstream giving us instant energy (if we need to fight or run away). Trouble is modern day stress doesn’t require us to run away or fight which means that the sugar and fat that your body releases to get you out of trouble is now redeposited around your middle, close to your liver, where it can be easily converted and re-released by the liver when the next stressful event arises.
Once the stress event has passed your adrenaline levels return to normal but your cortisol levels may remain elevated for longer – days rather than hours. This increases your appetite for fatty and sugary foods, your body does this because it thinks it needs to refuel which would be right if a physical event had happened. However, if the stressor was meeting a tight deadline, rather than fighting a sabre-toothed tiger, then it goes without saying that your body is not going to be needing the extra calories.
Long term stress quickly becomes chronic stress. The constant combination of sugar and fat being re-deposited around your middle, high fat, high sugar foods means that those under long term and chronic stress end up with an apple shaped body. Chronic stress can raise your risk levels of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic inflammation, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. High levels of cortisol can make you look older and if that wasn’t enough it can increase oxidative stress which damages our cells leading to premature wrinkling of the skin.
The Stress Balancing act
Despite the fact that high cortisol levels can have detrimental effects on our health, we categorically require it to survive. Cortisol plays a vital role in balancing blood sugar levels, maintaining immunity and heart health. Prolonged, long-term and Chronic stress – stress that is constant – can cause our adrenal glands to become fatigued which in turn can drastically lower the output of cortisol. Just as elevated cortisol levels can cause problems so can low cortisol levels.
When cortisol levels are too low, sleep, mood, appetite and concentration are often disrupted. Low levels of cortisol can make us more vulnerable to illness, behavioural and emotional problems, it can also increase the demand on the heart, muscles, digestive and immune systems. Balancing your cortisol levels is fundamental when trying to achieve optimum health.
Different people have different stressors and because everyone is unique we all deal with stress in distinctive ways. The stressor that freaks one person out may be the thing the keeps another going. Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to expect to live a life free from stress (though not impossible) but, there are ways that you can manage your stress through diet and lifestyle and supplement interventions to ensure that it doesn’t affect your wellbeing.