When we experience stress adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. This hormone increases your heart rate and blood pressure. On occasion this release is healthy, but frequent release could lead to health problems such as chronic high blood pressure, abnormal heart beats, and heart disease.The hormone cortisol is also released into the bloodstream. This hormone increases the release of glucose into the blood for quick energy and tissue repair. Cortisol also inhibits functions that would not be essential in a fight-or-flight situation such as the immune system, digestive system, and reproductive system. This hormone also interacts with the brain, altering mood. It is believed excess release of cortisol could lead to changes in metabolism, lower immunity, and infertility.
A study released this week from UC San Francisco followed 61 women for 1 year, half of whom where chronically stressed. Measurements of participant’s waistlines and fat distribution were assessed, and labs were drawn to identify insulin resistance, levels of stress hormones, and oxidative damage. Over the course of the year the women reported their intake of high sugar and high fat foods. The findings showed participants who were chronically stressed consumed similar amounts of high sugar, high fat foods but had significantly larger waistlines, higher oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance than lower stressed participants. This placed the stressed participants at higher health risk for heart disease and diabetes than unstressed participants who consumed the same amount of unhealthy food.The study highlights the fact that weight gain and weight loss may not be as simple as calories in versus calories out. In previous animal studies fat cells grew faster in response to junk food under chronically stressed environments; this study suggests a similar metabolic response in humans.
How can we combat the inevitable chronic stress many of us face due to our jobs and living situations?We need to develop a new attitude to problem solve and learn how to find solutions to limit the amount of stress we experience. We need to learn how to be flexible and “pick our battles”. We also need to learn to set limits and figure out when we need to say “No”.
We need to take care of ourselves. Eat health foods and avoid the junk; high sugar snacks and caffeine may be quick fixes but are not long term solutions to the problem. Start exercising to release “feel good” endorphins, relax tense muscles, improve your mood, and strengthen the cardiovascular system. Get enough sleep to be well rested and help your body recover from the stress you are under. Studies show lack of sleep can also increase the secretion of stress hormones in the body.We need to relax more. Take deep breaths to slow the heart, stretch, and massage muscles to reduce tension. Take time to do something you enjoy and get away from the stressful environment. Stay away from unhealthy expressions of stress relief such as drinking too much alcohol, smoking, or overeating.
We need to talk it out. Talk to trusted family and friends about your stress. Venting can be very cathartic and new perspectives and suggestions from others could help find new solutions you hadn’t considered. Also know when to consult a professional and your physician to learn better coping strategies and manage your health proactively.