Everyone talks about stress. But, what is stress? Stress is a reaction. It is the reaction that our mind and body have when our survival is threatened. Any threat, real or imaginary will all cause a stress reaction. Stress is an instantaneous reaction that can become so violent that it causes a heart attack. Generally stress doesn’t get to the point of causing a heart attack, but it does create a state of general alarm so extreme that our entire hormonal and nervous system is affected. Each cell in our body is affected by the reaction we call stress. It is an effect that is definitely cumulative. You only need to notice how worn out and tired a person looks who has recently lost a loved one in order to see how stress affects the entire body in a thousand and one ways.
Some people live in a state of stress that is so continuous that they can’t distinguish whether they feel stress or not. When someone is stressed out on a routine basis they find it difficult to be fully aware of the fact that they are living a stress filled life. For example, a person who finds himself or herself forced to work in a job in which he or she is mistreated will feel continuously stressed while at their job. The same thing happens when a person experiences problems with their family or with a romantic partner and they have to live with it day after day. When stress becomes part of our daily life we grow accustomed to it and sometimes accept it as “normal”.
Hormonal Response to Stress - Cortisol
Besides the observable damage that stress can cause to your body and health, there is a factor that is measurable. It is a hormonal factor. When you are stressed your body produces an excess of the hormone cortisol. This hormone cortisol is called the stress hormone because your body produces it when you experience a stressful situation. Cortisol is a vital part of our internal alarm system. Our body produces this hormone with the purpose of using it to handle any emergency that is detected in our environment. It is a hormone that prepares the body for fight or flight. It was designed by nature to allow us to overcome a dangerous situation using our best physical and mental resources. That is why when we produce cortisol in response to a stressful situation our body responds by producing internal changes that help us survive the supposed danger or threat. These are internal changes like raising the blood pressure and greatly increasing the level of glucose to higher levels. The glucose level is increased so that the cells have enough energy available to fight or flee.
If the source of stress were a tiger that was chasing us down to tear us to shreds, all of this excess glucose that the cortisol put in our blood stream would be consumed by our efforts in running to get away from the tiger and there wouldn’t be a surplus of glucose after the period of stress. The problem is that when the source of the stress is for a short period of time, say some bad news, the glucose levels increase due to the cortisol, but the excess glucose that is not taken in by the cells is turned into fat to be stored. Glucose is the principal source of energy of all of the cells in our body, but when it isn’t used and there is an excess, the body turns it into fat to store it, as a source of energy for future use. Thus, stress produces an excess of glucose in the blood through the action of cortisol and this excess of glucose ends up being converted to fat that is then stored into our waistline, hips and abdomen. Yes, stress definitely makes us gain weight.
People that live in conditions of stress from work, family or daily life gain weight much easier because their levels of cortisol tend to be excessively high. When a stressful situation occurs and the cortisol successfully uses our liver glucose reserves we automatically feel hungry, especially for sweet foods and those that are a source of glucose like carbohydrates: bread, flour, chocolate, pasta, etc. So it’s not just that stress makes you gain weight, it makes you feel hungry. That’s why a person that feels depressed by a personal problem many times seeks solace in the refrigerator.
The best way to find out if stress is affecting you too much and to see if it is one of the reasons that you are experiencing a slow metabolism is to take note of your quality of sleep. Since the cortisol hormone is an alarm hormone it creates a strong state of alert in the body that doesn’t allow us to sleep peacefully. To the body’s cells cortisol is like an urgent warning of impending danger. Cortisol excites the cells and puts them in a state of alert so you won’t sleep well when under stress. The cortisol produced while under stress keeps the cells in a constant state of alarm and impedes what is called the “deep sleep” stage, which is the most restful and invigorating sleep for the body. It is the state of alarm created by cortisol that steals our quality or sleep.
Something additional that we know about cortisol and about stress is that when we experience a condition of stress our levels of cortisol dramatically increase and remain in our body for more than 8 hours after the incident before going back to normal levels. So, the effects of high levels of cortisol are long lasting. However, when we do moderate exercise (walking, swimming) for 30 to 45 minutes our body eliminates huge amounts of cortisol through the liver and this also makes the state of alarm produced by cortisol to go away much earlier. That’s why many people find that if they have had a very stressful day, they will have a very difficult time sleeping unless they do a bit of exercise before going to bed. Exercise helps us get good sleep because it lowers the level of cortisol that is in our bloodstream.
Your metabolism will be affected greatly by the cortisol hormone that it generates during stressful moments. All of this is enough to help you realize that your lifestyle is very much related to the condition of your metabolism and to the general state of your health. Anything that reduces stress increases our metabolism and helps us in losing weight. A better job, a good partner, an entertaining hobby, 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise and enjoyable vacations are all successful and positive influences to increasing your metabolism and reducing stress.
-Frank Suarez, Author of the book "The Power of Your Metabolism"