How Stress Affects Weight
Few understand exactly how stress can sabotage weight control. Anyone trying to manage weight, whether it's weight loss or simply avoiding weight-gain, knows that stress is not your friend.
Stress or stressor?
Stress is a biological reaction to events, circumstances, pressures or relationships that stimulate an internal reaction. All of those stimuli are called "stressors" because they cause a chain of physical internal events beyond the normal resting state. Even though stressors are not the same for each person, the stress state is universal. For instance, a hot sunny Saturday brings joy to a hardworking executive because she can spend her day off relaxing at the beach. That same day is bad news for a farmer who hasn't seen rain for five weeks. The executive calms down. The farmer goes into stress. All living creatures go into the stress mode in response to a perceived threat in their internal or external environment. It's the body's way of preparing for fight, flight, or paralysis. It's called "hyperadapting," meaning a superfast surge of internal resources to brace for what comes next. These include higher heart rate, breath rate, and blood pressure; temporary digestive shutdown (stomach "butterflies"); muscle tension; perspiration, including damp palms and soles; and other biochemical changes.
Physical Chain Reaction
All these changes are the result of nerve and chemical impulses in a complex chain reaction: limbic system > hypothalamus > pituitary and adrenal glands. Special hormones that are components of adrenalin (a stimulant) and cortisol (an anti-inflammatory) flood our system. Those resources fuel intense action and strength while protecting tissue until the stressor goes away. Then the stress mode dissipates and the body returns to normal. However, in today's world most of our stressors are psychological. So we rarely discharge the stimulants and anti-inflammatory substance through extreme physical action. Instead, they build up in our bodies which can lead to more harm than good.
A 21st Century Problem
As long as stressors occur seldom and we burn off the residue through exercise and get rest in between, there is no long-term effect. However, technology makes it possible to work around clock. Internet communications saturate us with more information than we can absorb. Multi-tasking drains the brain. Economic downturns bring financial challenges. The divorce rate weakens the traditional supports of family and society. If you feel anxious just reading this, that's an example of an internal stressor - your mind pushing your body into a stress reaction. In short, today's lifestyles and work styles constantly expose us to stressors. For millions, stress is no longer occasional but rather a chronic state.
Cortisol and Weight Gain
Of all the hormones secreted by the body during the stress response, one in particular affects weight control and other aspects of health if accumulates. A normal level of cortisol is necessary for brain, immune, muscle, blood sugar function and healthy circulation. On the other hand, chronic stress leads to a higher level of cortisol that is not discharged or burned up by physical exertion. This leads to numerous problems, including abdominal obesity, high blood sugar (adrenal diabetes), muscle wasting, bone loss, damage to the immune system and other conditions. Excessive cortisol may cause diminished energy/fatigue, poor memory function, insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, depression, inability to concentrate, and more. It can give the brain mistaken messages that lead to a sense of hunger. High levels of cortisol that are not managed through good habits such as regular exercise, relaxation, adequate sleep, play, good time management, and so on, can contribute to weight gain and obesity by altering metabolism, but also by inducing stress overeating, especially (but not only) in women.
Nature and Science to the Rescue
It's a fact of life that stressors confront us daily. It's hard to cultivate serenity under the circumstances. However, modern scientific research, drawing on centuries-old use of powerful natural substances, has provided us with supplements that can increase a sense of calmness and anxiety. They can "turn the volume down" on the internal stress mode so it doesn't go into high gear. Their calming mechanisms help keep the cortisol load from getting out of control, and perfectly compliment exercise, which helps rid the body of the hormonal residue of stress.