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Stress can contribute to insomnia, weight gain, digestive problems, anxiety, depression and frequent infections, and has also worryingly been linked with cancer and heart disease. How many of us have not said how “stressed out” they feel. Well stress can be having a very negative effect on our body and physical health.

Your body responds to all stress in exactly the same way, each time you have a stressful day, your brain instructs your cells to release potent hormones. You get a burst of adrenaline and at the same time, you get a surge “stress hormones” the main one being cortisol, which tells your body to replenish that energy even though you haven’t used very many calories. This can make you hungry and your body keeps on pumping out that cortisol as long as the stress continues.

Cortisol is essential keeping us going throughout the day, and enabling our body to cope with the normal everyday stress it has to encounter. However, the type of stress many of us encounter in our lives can be described as chronic stress. Some of us have what is described as chronic stress where stress is experienced over a number of weeks, months or even years. When we are under chronic stress, the adrenal glands can become overworked by having to pump out cortisol almost constantly, and over time this is detrimental to our health.

Research has shown that elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain. One of the effects of cortisol is that it mobilises triglycerides (a type of fat) from cells in the body where they are stored, and relocates them as visceral fat around the abdomen. When you are under a lot of stress, you may start to notice weight creeping on around your middle. This type of weight gain has been shown to increase risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.

High cortisol levels can also intensify our food cravings for high-calorie foods, making us crave the foods and drinks that are going to give us that instant pick me up which aren’t usually the type of foods that are good for us. We crave sweet, salty, and high-fat foods because they stimulate the brain to release pleasure chemicals that reduce tension, and this soothing effect becomes addicting, so every time you’re anxious, you want fattening foods.

Sustained high cortisol can cause blood glucose levels to rise, suppressing the effect of insulin. Without insulin doing its job properly, this glucose cannot enter the cells where it is needed and this leads again to a raging appetite, which may lead to overeating. Additionally, all the unused glucose in the blood eventually gets stored as body fat.

When our bodies are under chronic stress, the best way we can avoid weight gain is to regulate cortisol levels through diet and stress management which could be in the form of exercise. Regular aerobic exercise will bring changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol and also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of relaxation and optimism that accompany many hard workouts.

Take advice from your personal trainer who can advise you on an exercise plan and the dietary requirements that will complement it. An anti-inflammatory diet could be of benefit as chronic stress can result in systemic inflammation throughout the body, which in turn helps to keep cortisol levels elevated. With an anti-inflammatory diet you should be able to reduce cortisol levels. This could consist of an increase in plant foods: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and pulses and a good intake of omega-3 fats found in oily fish, flaxseed for vegetarians. Too much caffeine puts a strain on overworked adrenal glands by causing them to become over-stimulated, caffeine combined with stress raises cortisol levels more than stress alone. So you may want to take it easy with the coffee or switch to decaffeinated.

Another stress buster is sleep. A study showed appetite—particularly for sweet and salty foods—increased by 23% in people who lacked sleep. A few nights of solid sleep can bring your body back into balance.

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