It’s a Thursday morning, and you finally roll out of bed after hitting the snooze button more times than you’d like to admit. You were up late putting the finishing touches on the PowerPoint for the presentation you have to give today, and now you’re in a rush to get to work on time. You skip the shower and hope that slapping on some deodorant will be good enough. Sprinting down the stairs, you forego breakfast, get into your car, and speed away with the knowledge that unless you hit every green light, you’ll be late.
That is a stressful morning by most people’s standards. However, the issue with stress and our health is that we tend to limit stress to overwhelming situations like the morning that was just described. When most people think of stress, they think of things like work deadlines, difficult relationships, or financial problems. The problem with stress is we limit it to only mental factors, when in reality stress is deeply physiological. Additionally, we often wrongly equate “handling stress well” with a lack of stress. But this isn’t the case. Stress is affecting your health, whether you want to admit it or not. But it starts with an accurate understanding of what stress is.
Stress is anything that disrupts homeostasis (which is the scientific term for the balance in our bodies). It can be mental, emotional, or physical. Sure, a bad day at the office or an argument with your spouse can add to your perceived mental/emotional stress, but things like an increase in body temperature, fluctuations in blood sugar, or elevated heart rate or blood pressure are also forms of stress on the body. Based on this definition of stress, there are “good” and “bad” stressors. Eustress (a positive form of stress) like exercise can lead to a rise in body temperature and heart rate, which disrupts homeostasis, but we all know that it yields beneficial results. On the other hand, distress (a negative form of stress) such as sickness can have the same effects on our body, but this is more destructive than helpful.
Because our body’s response to stress (in ALL forms) is largely the same, it’s important to manage your overall stress load.
Stress prompts our body to release a steroid hormone called cortisol that affects a number of systems in the body. Cortisol, especially in excess amounts, impacts our body both short term and long term. Once under stress, the body releases cortisol which goes straight to work increasing sugar in the bloodstream, altering your immune responses, and suppressing the digestive & reproductive systems, among other things1. This is not inherently bad, as it is associated with the “fight or flight” response, which is part of the body’s survival mechanisms. So to say cortisol is bad for you is a bit misleading. However, like most things, too much cortisol presents a problem. That is why this discussion is focused on chronic stress, rather than acute stress.
Chronic overproduction of cortisol can lead to metabolic breakdown. This causes a wide variety of issues. One major issue is decreased sex hormone production, which can negatively affect libido, as well as cause irregular periods in women2. Low testosterone is also associated with a decrease in lean muscle mass, and less lean muscle mass will result in a decrease in the metabolism2. If left unchecked, this will eventually lead to an increase in bodyfat.
There are other ways that stress and cortisol can impact your body composition, as it also influences where your body stores fat3. Typically, stress leads to storing more fat in the abdomen, which may lead to a number of other health problems stemming from excessive amounts of adipose tissue around your organs. Not to mention, it’s part of the reason people get a gut!
Metabolic breakdown can also include thyroid dysfunction, increased inflammation, and blood sugar issues. Elevated cortisol levels stimulate appetite, causing you to crave sweet, salty, or fatty foods1. Yes, “stress eating” is a very real thing! It also impacts sleep, as it can decrease both sleep quantity and quality, meaning you are more likely to wake up feeling tired, ill-rested, and ready to start the cycle of having a bad day all over again.
All that to say, stress is much more prevalent than most of us would like to admit. But having stress is not the problem… allowing stress to take a physiological toll on our body is. That is why we talk about “stress management” rather than “stress reduction.” We should be placing our focus on techniques to blunt the effect that stress can have on our overall health and wellness.
1.How stress affects your health. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress.aspx. Accessed Feb. 12, 2016.
2. Stress and your health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/good-mental-health/stress-and-your-health. Accessed Feb. 12, 2016.
3. Stoppler, M. (2017, August 15). Can Stress Make You Gain Weight? Retrieved from https://www.medicinenet.com/can_stress_make_you_fat/views.htm