Is stress affecting your weight, memory, and health?
Michelle Dowker, MSc, ND
When you are experiencing chronic stress, your brain is constantly being bathed in this stress hormone. This increases your risk of mood disorders, mental issues, and negatively affects your brain function. The rest of the cells in your body are also exposed, which affects your metabolism and immune system.
Let’s examine how chronic stress and cortisol can affect these body systems:
When your body is under chronic stress, it wants energy. Your appetite is on the rise, thanks to the extra cortisol, and your body typically seeks sugar for a quick energy boost.
For those who have adapted to a low-carbohydrate way of eating, these immediate sugar cravings may no longer be an issue, however, stress eating can still pose a problem.
Certain foods and food combinations can activate neurochemical receptors in the brain, providing a temporary feeling of pleasure. Most commonly, sugar and a sugar + fat or starch + fat combination are chosen to provide that temporary relief.
Unfortunately, combining sugar or starch + fat together is not only pleasurable, it causes people to consume more calories than if either sugar or fat was consumed separately. So stress eating can definitely contribute to weight gain.
In addition, cortisol itself can impact metabolism, through its effect on insulin. Most commonly, this negative metabolic impact can be seen as weight gain in the abdominal region.
Beyond the body, chronic stress can shrink your brain. High levels of cortisol influences the size of your pre-frontal cortex. This is the area of your brain responsible for regulating judgment, concentration, social skills, and decision-making.
Beyond that, it can also cause issues for the area of your brain in charge of your memory, learning, and stress control. As the hippocampus is compromised, so is your ability to manage stress. This can also set the stage for bigger issues, including depression and dementia.
So often, we hear complaints of foggy thinking and poor memory. It can be difficult to concentrate and focus. There may be other factors to consider, however, chronic stress hormone production can play a significant role in how your brain and memory work.
Chronic stress can make you sick. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Chronic stress hormone exposure can change your brain, it can influence how you eat, and it can also impact the rest of your body.
Your immune function can become disrupted and your body struggles to heal itself. Chronic stress is a common trigger for immune dysfunction, including autoimmune disorders.
Additionally, the body makes a lot of repairs as we sleep and chronic stress makes sleep difficult to achieve. If you’re not sleeping enough, this in itself can contribute to further stress hormone production, as well as immune dysfunction. If you’re struggling with your sleep, click here to read the helpful starting tips in our sleep guide.
Chronic cortisol production also affects your gastrointestinal system, which can lead to heartburn and bowel issues, among other digestive troubles. Chronic stress can also result in stomach ulcers, headaches, fatigue, acne, irritability, hair loss, and sexual dysfunction.
When the nervous system is in that sympathetic “fight or flight” mode, blood flow and nerve conduction to the gastrointestinal tract and reproductive system are limited, because the body wants to put its energetic resources toward the systems required to fight for your life. So there’s more energy directed towards large muscles, the heart and lungs so you can run away or fight back.
It’s when the body is in the relaxed parasympathetic mode (called “rest and digest”), that energy is directed towards digestion and reproduction. This is why it’s so important to manage stress hormone, and try to keep your parasympathetic nervous system activated more often than the sympathetic nervous system. Click here to learn more about these two systems.
What do you think? Is chronic stress affecting your weight, memory, and health?
Try this as a starting point to start getting chronic stress hormone under better control.
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