While most of us are familiar with the idea of “stress eating,” chronic stress can wreak havoc on our weight even if we don’t indulge.
Contrary to what you may think, stress isn’t really good or bad. In fact, in the category of “doing it all,” stress really takes the win.
While it can make you anxious and might cause your hair to fall out, it can also help you excel in competitions and allow you to make that work deadline.
But it’s how stress impacts our body — especially over time — that is important for us to understand.
When we are stressed, our behaviors become modified. We choose things reactively as we go into survival mode. So when we are stressed, it’s only natural that we become less mindful of our eating. And because your body is reacting as though you are being chased by a bear, it tends to crave those hyper-palatable foods higher in fat and sugar – energy sources!
On top of that, when we’re stressed our body’s digestion slows down so that we don’t expend energy on unnecessary things. Of course, this natural process inhibits the processing of those indulgent treats that we ate because we’re stressed!
If this was just a once in a while thing, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The problem is that our always-on society has left most of us living in a chronic state of stress. And that becomes a problem.
When you’re in a chronic state of stress, your impulse control is also negatively impacted. This can, therefore, lead you to build new and less-than-healthy habits. It can also adversely affect your HPA axis, which leaves your body’s efferent and afferent communication lines all out of wack.
And when your organs aren’t communicating to the brain and vice versa, things can go unnoticed, fester, and go sideways.
What a mess!
But It’s More Than Impulsivity
And while all you behavioral scientists out there might argue that we all should just plan ahead when we’re stressed so that we don’t risk indulging in sweets and saturated fats, it may not be that simple. In fact, even if you are able to resist the temptations of sugary sweets while having a breakdown, your stress can still cause your body to react as though you’ve indulged in that rich slice of chocolate cake.
The reason is cortisol.
When you’re chronically stressed, your body creates sustained higher levels of this stress hormone, which has a negative impact on our insulin resistance and metabolic health and causes our blood sugar to spike.
So how does this actually work? When we are in that panicked, bear-chasing-us state, an electrical shift initiates a series of chemicals and hormones that make sugar in our blood more available.
In short, your body turns glycogen to glucose so that you’ll have quick and accessible fuel available to make your life-saving dash!
Much like stress, cortisol is neither good nor bad. It plays an important role with everyday things like getting up in the morning and feeling raring to go. But sustained levels of heightened cortisol causes blood sugar to spike — even if you were able to resist that donut. And it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a constant surge of heightened blood sugar is probably not the greatest for your metabolic health.
Consistently High Blood Sugar Leads to Weight Gain…and More
It is these sustained and heightened blood sugar levels that are the real risk when it comes to chronic stress. Just like stress and cortisol, sugar is not evil. We need blood sugar to be bioavailable to help us create energy and for our brain and body to function properly. We just don’t need the constant spikes.
The challenge is that when our cortisol is chronically elevated from constant levels of stress, it makes elevating our blood sugar a regular thing. At the same time, cortisol decreases our sensitivity to insulin.
This process happens “by design” to ensure that our glucose is available for our great escape, but has a detrimental effect when it occurs chronically. In fact, chronically heightened levels of cortisol has been linked to increased weight gain, decreased muscle development, and decreased sleep quality. And most importantly from a health perspective, these sustained cortisol and blood sugar levels can trigger the onset of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
The irony isn’t lost on me — if you’re already stressed out, reading this article has probably just made you even more stressed. How nice of me, right?
But the most important first step in dealing with chronic stress is acknowledging the impact it can have on your health and wellbeing (not to mention your weight if a little vanity is a better motivator!). The biggest mistake you can make is to just shrug off all that chronic stress as something that just leaves you exhausted and a little grumpy.
Now you know what’s really happening and the impact it can have.
So, if you want to protect your metabolic health, the most powerful choice you can make is to start by reducing your chronic stress levels.