Stress is notorious for causing comfort-food cravings and depleting willpower to make healthy choices. But did you also know it can do a lot of metabolic damage, even if you never give into sugar or high fat food cravings?

We’ve all experienced the surge of energy that comes from something threatening or startling like a possible car accident. This is the “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years. As your body experiences life threatening stress, the adrenal glands (a triangle-shaped organs at the top of the kidneys) release cortisol, the “stress hormone”, into your bloodstream. This triggers a flood of glucose to supply an immediate energy source to your large muscles and narrow your arteries, while another hormone, epinephrine, increases your heart rate. These two hormones force your blood to pump harder and faster as you confront and resolve the immediate threat. Your hormone levels return to normal after you swerve to miss this oncoming car.

This is a wonderful system, if we are being chased by a lion, but here’s the problem. If your entire life is always high-stress, your body will constantly pump out cortisol.

This has several negative effects that include:

  • Intestinal problems, such as constipation, bloating or diarrhea. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tract can’t digest or absorb food well. This is why ulcers, colitis and IBS occur during stressful times.
  • Anxiety or depression: When you are unhappy, your body craves dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter). Foods high in fat and sugar give the body the rush of dopamine it needs to feel better. Unfortunately, this causes weight gain.
  • Weight gain: As your cells cry out for energy, your body sends signals to the brain that you are hungry and need to eat. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as fat.
  • Increased blood sugar levels: Insulin typically helps the cells convert glucose to energy. Because cortisol inhibits the pancreas from producing enough insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don’t get the sugar they need to perform at their best.
  • Heart disease: Constricted arteries and high blood pressure can lead to blood vessel damage and plaque buildup in your arteries. They could be setting the stage for a heart attack or stroke.
  • Poor sleep: This heightened level of stress makes restful sleep difficult, which is also linked to weight gain.
  • Suppressed immune system: Cortisol’s positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. You could be more susceptible to colds and illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increases and you could develop food allergies.

For these reasons, it is important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors. Stress is a facts of life and you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage your stress.

Stress management strategies include:

Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep

Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate

Taking time for hobbies

Fostering healthy friendships

Having a sense of humor

Volunteering in your community

Seeking professional counseling when needed

The reward for managing stress is not only weight management; but a happier, healthier life as well.

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