All of us experience stress. Whether it’s a result of running late to work, prepping for a major presentation, caring for a sick loved one, or providing for your family, stress is a factor in everyone’s daily life. But what exactly is stress? And how does it affect the mind and body?
Stress is a natural reaction to threats or challenges that occur in our lives. For the sake of your own safety, your body is hard-wired to react to stress. When stressful moments arise, the typical response is a range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, and sometimes even motivation. Yes — motivation. Not all stress manifests as lasting turmoil. Some stressors can actually motivate us towards the completion of tasks or projects.
While random episodes of acute stress are easy for your body to recover from, there is another type of stress that is more of a cause for concern: chronic stress. Chronic stress is a feeling of lingering pressure and anxiety that persists over a long duration of time. In addition to feeling unpleasant, chronic stress can be detrimental to your body composition.
If not treated, chronic stress can lead to illness, ailments, and a loss of well-being, decreasing your ability to work out regularly and build lean muscle mass.
What is Cortisol?
Stress is a constant. Big or small, your daily stressors trigger a natural response within your body’s autonomic nervous system, which is composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both systems support your daily functions and internal needs. Known as the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system aids in digestion, urination, and lacrimation (tears). It also promotes immunity, healing, growth, and repair. Last but not least, the parasympathetic system conserves energy for your body’s future needs.
The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the reactive side of the autonomic nervous system. Once the sympathetic nervous system is activated, there are two possible outcomes: fight or flight. While the fight and flight reactions appear to be very different, both share a common link: cortisol.
You may be wondering, what is cortisol? Known as the primary stress hormone, cortisol is a hormone produced by your body’s adrenal glands. When you’re faced with stressful circumstances, it spikes, providing you with energy to cope with the situation at hand (i.e., helping you to fight or flee when you’re in a dangerous scenario). Cortisol can also be a positive force, in the sense that it signals your body to be on high alert and ready to react.
While cortisol is useful in short-term situations, it can become harmful if released for longer periods of time. Prolonged cortisol secretion can result in cortisol dysfunction, which may lead to consistent inflammation in your body. Under these conditions, your body is constantly reliving its initial stress response, creating a cycle of pain, anxiety, frustration, and, ultimately, depression. As this hormone is secreted throughout your system, your body and mind are kept on constant high alert.
This is not ideal for your body composition. One study found that higher cortisol levels were associated with a less healthy body composition (specifically, higher body fat and lower muscle mass levels). In addition, chronic stress may cause medical issues to occur.
How Does Heightened Cortisol Change Your Appetite?
Another way that stress may alter your body composition is through changing your eating habits. Both acute and chronic stress have an effect on your appetite. Sometimes, those who are experiencing acute stress also suffer from a suppressed appetite.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, may promote cravings for high-fat, energy-dense foods that are highly palatable (such as junk food). These cravings are the direct result of cortisol’s impact on your body.
As previously mentioned, chronic stress causes a prolonged secretion of cortisol within the body. This continual influx is linked to multiple body composition changes, including weight gain. Why? Elevated cortisol levels directly influence eating behaviors by stimulating appetite hormones like leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. These hormones communicate with the central nervous system, signaling hunger, cravings, and energy homeostasis.
Both ghrelin and cortisol hormones have a direct, positive influence on each other, which can ultimately lead to weight gain. As stress triggers your body to release cortisol, ghrelin hormones are also activated in response. Ghrelin is responsible for signaling your body to crave food more frequently. The resulting cravings are often for unhealthy, calorie-dense foods with high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates. As ghrelin is released, the urge to binge-eat unhealthy food continually occurs, which may lead to weight gain throughout the entire body.
Heightened cortisol is also shown to stimulate gluconeogenesis, which may result in insulin resistance. When insulin resistance is developed, it gives rise to increased glucose levels in your bloodstream. Not only is this a key component of Type 2 diabetes, but it’s also a leading cause of obesity.
In addition, higher insulin levels have been associated with greater brain activation during stress. They stimulate the reward region of the brain, sending signals throughout the body that cue you to experience increased food cravings.
Can Stress Change Your Body Composition in Other Ways?
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the number of health benefits associated with constantly handling stress is … zero! Unfortunately, stress affects your body composition in more ways than one. For starters, stress causes your body to tighten, adding tension to your entire musculoskeletal system.
When you’re suffering from chronic stress, your muscles are constantly constricted, causing headaches, migraines, and pain to spread throughout your upper extremities and lower back. If relaxation techniques are not implemented, this muscle tension can result in chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions, impairing your ability to continue to work out and build lean muscle mass.
Even more concerningly, stress can induce earlier declines in muscle strength in older populations, which may eventually lead to falls and fractures.
In addition to constricting muscles, stress also constricts respiratory pathways. These pathways are crucial, as they supply oxygen throughout your body. That’s why stress-induced emotions can cause you to have shortness of breath. As the airway between your nose and lungs constricts, your breath becomes more rapid, and it’s harder to breathe in general. For people with pre-existing respiratory issues, this can be detrimental. Additionally, short, rapid breaths may cause you to have panic attacks.
Lastly, stress takes a toll on the cardiovascular system, i.e. your heart and blood vessels. Acute stress immediately results in an increased heart rate. It also leads to stronger contractions of your heart muscle, causing that “pounding in the chest” feeling.
As your heart contracts harder, your blood pumps at a greater speed, increasing your body’s blood pressure and inflammation. If you have chronic stress, these reactions continue over a prolonged period of time, raising your risk of hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease.
From musculoskeletal system tension and constricted respiratory pathways to increasing inflammation within the body’s circulatory system, stress does a number on your entire body, inside and out.
Plus, as previously mentioned, stress can induce weight gain. Cortisol plays a role in this, as stress has been linked to abdominal obesity. Not only does cortisol increase your appetite and cause you to crave high-calorie “comfort foods,” it also causes a redistribution of white adipose tissue to the abdominal region.
What Other Risks Are Associated with Stress?
When the body reacts to acute stress, the results can often be rewarding, in the sense that a burst of energy or a quick reaction can motivate you to succeed and accomplish tasks. But this is not the case with chronic stress. Unfortunately, chronic stress can lead to more serious outcomes, such as disease, long-term pain, and inflammation.
When cortisol dysfunction occurs, there is an unmodulated inflammatory response to physiological stressors. This stress-induced inflammation is detrimental to the body, inducing free radical damage, cellular death, aging, and systemic tissue degeneration.
Symptoms of cortisol dysfunction include the breakdown of bone and muscle, pain, memory impairment, and orthostatic hypotension. Other leading risks associated with chronic stress are osteoporosis, sciatica, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular fatigue, heart attacks, myopathy, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and even depression.
You get the picture: stress-induced inflammation is serious! It can lead to the onset of new symptoms as well as cause a domino effect in your body, which may give rise to multiple inflammatory diseases.
Top Tips to Relieve Stress
As we’re sure you know, stressors have the tendency to enter our lives frequently! That said, there are some easy, actionable ways to cope with stress that have the potential to prevent it from becoming chronic and all-consuming.
Firstly, studies show that incorporating yoga and meditation into your daily routine allows your body to truly relax. Yoga can help decrease your systolic and diastolic blood pressure, while mindfulness may slow your pulse. Mindfulness can also help you to process your thoughts and emotions to be more easily as they occur.
You may be wondering, what is mindfulness? Simply put, it is the practice of being present in each moment and acknowledging your environment and surroundings. Being mindful trains your brain to place a greater focus on the current moment, rather than mulling over internal worries.
Although developing mindfulness can be challenging, a greater connection to the “here and now” has been shown to benefit your overall physical and mental health.
Improving your overall health can also help to relieve stress. When possible, try to get active and move your body! Physical activity not only increases endorphins (the happy hormones), but also helps to clear stressful thoughts from your mind. Not to mention, getting exercise is beneficial for your entire system. Pick an activity like walking or jogging outside, which will help you to break a sweat and enjoy your beautiful surroundings at the same time.
Other techniques for enhancing your overall health include eating a nutritious diet and getting enough sleep each night. As you go about your day, try to reach for foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains.
Not only will these foods fuel your body with sustainable energy throughout the day, they also taste good!
Similarly, experiencing a proper amount of sleep each night results in lowered stress levels. That’s because, during a good night’s sleep, your body enters rest and repair mode. In fact, cortisol is at its lowest secretion level during the middle of the night! After that, your cortisol level will begin to rise, to get you ready for your morning.
Lastly, and most importantly, connecting with loved ones can dramatically improve your stress levels. Whether it’s a family member, dear friend, or even a neighbor, reaching out for social interaction distracts you from your troubles and may bring you much-needed support.
When feelings of stress sneak into your body and mind, it’s natural to want to hide. However, by pushing through the instinct to isolate and calling a friend instead, you can build a more solid support system that helps you weather life’s stresses more easily.
Stress is Inevitable — and Manageable
Here’s the bottom line: stress is unavoidable. It occurs in all of our lives on a daily basis, and each person has a different tolerance level for it. However, stress doesn’t need to rule over your body. To improve your overall wellness, develop the ability to recognize signs of stress at their onset. Here’s how:
When you notice yourself feeling upset, acknowledge the situation and the reason why it is causing you stress. Then, react promptly. If your stress still lingers, implement a couple of quick and easy tips to redirect the mind. For example, a simple walk around the block or phone call to a loved one may be all that you need to get in tune with the current moment. Remember to put yourself first!