If you don’t already know, the body is an extremely complex and complicated machine with a myriad of different moving parts and mechanisms, that when under the right conditions can adapt and overcome almost any obstacle that is put in front of it. However your body likes homeostasis, or a state of equilibrium, where all of its moving parts are working properly and in conjunction to maintain a steady state. This ideal state is accomplished essentially through avoiding anything internal or external that can interrupt this process, otherwise known as stress. Hans Selye, a foremost stress physiologist of the 20th century defined stress as “….the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it (6).” Depending on the type stress and how your body adapts determines the positive or negative effect it places on the body. Positive outcomes from stress can come in the form of, increased motivation, increased physical attributes or increased cognitive function. Negative outcomes can include, weight gain or obesity, suppressed immune system, and can even lead diabetes. For this article I would like to focus on the negative the effects stress can play on your body and fitness goals, and healthy ways to manage that stress.
Weight Gain and obesity
When under stress one of the main hormones that your body releases is called cortisol. This hormone has many effects on the body, one being energy production but one of the most alarming is the effect it has on fat production and transport. When cortisol is released it takes excess circulating fat and fat from storage depots and relocates it in fat cells in the abdomen and around intestines, this specific type of fat is also referred to as visceral fat (4). Furthermore there is a gene that is found in fat tissue that actually activates cortisol, and this gene is found to be expressed more in obese conditions (4). It has also been shown visceral fat contains four times the amount of cortisol receptors as subcutaneous fat as well as an increased blood flow(3). Both of these factors can lead to an increased amount of fat accumulation as well as fat cell enlargement in the abdomen area. Along with transporting to and increasing the amount of fat in the abdomen area, cortisol has also been found to help aid the maturation and growth process of adipocytes, or baby fat cells, into larger and harder to burn mature fat cells (1). What all of this means is that when you are stressed for long periods of time your body will actually move and store fat in your stomach area, help to grow and mature fat cells which are then harder to remove, and even make it more it easier for your body to store fat in these areas! So if you’re wanting to lose that spare tire, you better RELAX!
Blood sugar imbalance and Diabetes
When our bodies are placed under stress we immediately go into a “fight or flight” response. In this state two hormones are released adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for choosing the right amount and type of substrate (carb, protein, fat) for energy (1). Since cortisol is mainly released during times of stress in this “fight or flight” stage, it also has the main function of shutting down all unnecessary body functions in order to allow all of the body’s energy to go towards dealing with the stress at hand. So what does this mean? This means cortisol stimulates glucogenesis which basically means it takes amino acids, proteins, and other chemicals from our muscles and throughout the body to be converted into glucose, or sugar, to be used for immediate energy(1). This process of glucogenesis causes the instant flooding of your body with glucose. Cortisol then inhibits insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that transports glucose into cells to be stored. When insulin is inhibited this allows for the glucose to remain in the blood stream. The problem with this is that longer your body stays in this state of high blood sugar and low insulin production, the greater chance you have of your cells becoming insulin resistant. Once your cells become insulin resistant your body can struggle to keep up with your body’s need for insulin, otherwise known as diabetes. Another great side effect of the constant onslaught of high blood sugar is that your body’s cells will eventually become starved of glucose, due to the fact insulin production is shut down. So your body reacts in the only way it knows how to get the sugar it needs, and that’s through eating! To compensate for the lack in glucose in your cells your body will increase its appetite and actually start to crave sugary foods and other carbohydrates to replenish its fuel stores, which commonly leads to poor food choices and overeating. So in short cortisol steals from your muscles to create energy, stops insulin production, and increases appetite for sugars and carbs. All of which if occurs for long enough can cause insulin resistant cells, weight gain, and ultimately diabetes.
Suppressed Immune system
Another charming attribute of cortisol is the effect it has by suppressing your body’s immune system. When cortisol is released it suppresses the activity and production of white blood cells, your body’s main weapon against foreign invaders and pathogens. It also suppresses the white blood cell’s ability to produce the chemical messengers, interleukins and interferons (5). These chemical messengers allow for the different type of immune system cells to communicate with each other properly to fight off bacteria or infection. Also after long periods, cortisol has actually been shown to completely shut off certain immune system cells causing them to stop working and die (2). Both of these conditions can greatly increase the body’s chance of contracting all ranges of diseases and illnesses that on normal conditions your body could fight. This suppression of the immune system can also have a domino effect creating digestion issues as well. Due to the fact that a healthy gastrointestinal system is reliant on a properly working immune system, when your immune system it has direct effects on your intestinal system. When your immune system is partially shut down or impaired it can then also lead to problems such as ulcers, heartburn, or irritable bowel syndrome. So all in all stress impairs your immune system making you much more likely to catch that next cold or even worse, all the while disrupting digestion and your intestinal system.
As I’ve explained above stress can be a real pain, literally. Unfortunately in the world of today we are facing more and more stress every single day. However we’re not completely helpless in this battle. With proper techniques and strategies you can help me combat this stress in hopes to prevent some of these negative side effects from happening. In my opinion probably the most useful and important would be…you probably guessed it, exercise! Engaging in regular exercise helps reduce fatigue by increasing metabolism and energy production. Exercise also causes the brain to release endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural pain killers and stimulate a sense of joy and well-being. It has also been shown to help regulate and improve the body’s natural sleep cycles. Other methods that have been shown to help your body release these endorphins are meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy and even just simple activities as deep breathing. So even though it isn’t realistic to remove all stress from our everyday life, we can combat. So when you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by what’s going on in your life try one of these useful techniques to bring some calm and relaxation back in your life.
- Cortisol — Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy
By Dina Aronson, MS, RD
11 No. 11 P. 38
- Epel, E.S., B. McEwen, T. Seeman, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortiso
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- Morris, K.L. & M.B. Zemel, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 modulation of adipocyte glucocorticoid function. Obesity Research 13: 670-677, 2005.
- The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health – And What You Can Do About It by Shawn M Talbott, PhD
- Jones, T.L. Definition of stress. In J.J. Robert-McComb (Ed.), Eating Disorders in Women and Children: Prevention, Stress Management, and Treatment (pp. 89- 100). Boca Raton, FL: CRS Press, 2001.