How does stress effect our health?
Through thousands of years of evolution, the human body has developed an exquisitely sensitive system to help cope with stress. It has been integral to our survival as a species.
The trouble is, the stress response wasn’t meant to be “on” all the time. Yet that is exactly what is happening in modern life, as assorted stressors bombard us in the normal course of our daily routines. They trigger the release of brain chemicals and hormones that flood the body, setting in motion a cascade of biochemical changes that over time can deplete us — body, mind and spirit.
Though we may not be able to control the circumstances that create stress, we can control our response to it. Some people view stress as a challenge to grow and develop. For others, stress becomes distress — increasing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, fatigue, anxiety, and mental distraction. The body simply can’t function under these conditions for an extended period. To switch off this response, we must learn first to recognize stress, then to stop it in its tracks — whether by confronting it, sidestepping it, or turning it into something positive.
More Stress, More Fat
Each time you experience a stressful situation, your adrenal glands dump epinephrine and cortisol into the bloodstream. These so-called stress hormones prepare you to either take on the situation or to escape from it. Scientists refer to this as the fight-or-flight response.
As part of this response, the body taps its fat stores, releasing fat molecules into the bloodstream. From there the fat molecules travel to the muscles, which can burn fat for energy. But given the nature of modern stressors — deadlines, traffic jams, family disputes — the muscles usually don’t need the extra fuel. We’re more likely to stew or sulk than to sprint from our troubles. So the fat molecules float around in the bloodstream with no place to go.
Before long, the brain sends out signals for the stress hormones to clean up the fat molecules, which the hormones do. Only instead of returning to the fat cells, most of thee fat molecules end up in storage in one place: the abdominal area. Excess abdominal fat is a known risk factor for a variety of health concerns, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
In effect, the more stress you experience over the course of a day, the more likely you’ll gain weight rather than lose it. What’s more, research shows that stress feeds into habits that contribute to overweight and obesity — such as making poor food choices (especially fatty and sugary foods, which you are more likely to crave when under stress), overeating, and skipping workouts. You simply may not be as tuned in to the signals that normally would direct you toward healthy eating. According to some studies, stress can trigger the starvation response, a protective mechanism that heightens fat making as well as fat storage.
Conversely, the less stress you hold on to, the greater your metabolic power may be. That’s because people who are anxious or angry metabolize fat more slowly than others.