People are often unaware of how greatly stress can affect health. Stress can trigger the physical “fight or flight” response from your body, affecting your blood pressure, circulation, breathing, muscles, and senses.
Stress can also affect the strength of the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections. Over time, stress can exacerbate the conditions that cause hypertension, stroke, heart disease, depression, alcoholism, gastrointestinal disorders, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and diverticulitis.
Other related disorders that are symptoms of stress include:
• migraine headaches
• hay fever
• menstrual irregularities
Stress and Weight
Stress can affect your weight. Studies have shown that the hormone cortisol increases in your body in response to stress; cortisol can cause carbohydrate cravings and make the storage of fat more efficient.
When stress is prolonged, the brain chemical serotonin, which controls mood and energy, becomes depleted. When we eat carbohydrates (especially simple sugars with fat, such as a donut), serotonin levels are increased, triggering more cravings. This cycle can lead to weight gain.
In addition to the chemical ways that stress can contribute to weight gain, many of us also reach for food as a way to manage or ease tension. For some people, drinking alcohol is their way to relax or deal with stress–but it isn’t the best choice for promoting better health and managing a healthy, consistent weight (for more information on how alcohol might affect your weight, see our FAQ “Alcohol, Weight Loss”).
Managing Your Stress
Learning positive ways to manage stress can be a key component to staying healthy and managing your weight.
Try to be conscious of your body when your stress levels start to mount (a stiff neck, aching back or throbbing head are telltale signs) and take steps to soothe yourself before your cortisol climbs:
• take a few deep, soothing breaths and consciously relax your jaw
• get up from your desk, stretch, and take a quick walk down the hall
• practice proper nutrition
• involve yourself in challenging activities
• maintain a high level of fitness
Exercise is the best tension management tool and body fat burner we have; it increases levels of serotonin in the brain, thereby decreasing cravings for carbohydrates. Walking 4-6 days per week for 30-45 minutes is very effective.
Besides helping you manage stress, finding ways to relax can also help decrease food cravings. Some people use medication, yoga, deep breathing, self-hypnosis, and music to relax. It’s important to find a form of relaxation that you look forward to, so that you will practice it regularly.