Under pressure

In today’s fast-paced culture, stress comes at us from many angles. Job worries, financial problems, family obligations and other commitments can contribute to a rising stress level. Additionally, people feel stressed when they are not living up to their own expectations related to values, goals and self-image.

Stress is your body’s natural reaction to high-pressure situations. Experiencing stress over prolonged periods of time can have an undeniable impact on your health. It raises blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism and blood flow to the muscles. Symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, backaches and constipation or diarrhea have also been linked to stress. Long-term stress can also lead to heart disease and weight gain.

Stress and weight

One of the most significant effects of stress is weight-gain or obesity. Eating is the body’s natural reaction to stress. In prehistoric times, dangerous situations – such as interaction with a wild animal – would trigger a human’s “fight or flight” response. This would release two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline allows your body to get more oxygen to the lungs, increasing physical performance for short bursts of time. Once the stress of the danger passes, cortisol is released, increasing your appetite and fatigue.

Today, our body works the same, but the stress factors have changed. Although you aren’t fending off or fleeing from wild animals, an argument or stressful phone call still creates the same “fight or flight” response. When the stressful situation has passed, increased cortisol makes you hungry to replenish the energy you may have used.

The foods we crave during stress include carbohydrates and sugars, which provide quick energy. Unfortunately, this can lead to unhealthy choices like chips and sweets. In addition, cortisol reduces testosterone, leading to muscle loss, and, as it's stored in fat cells, this can make weight loss challenging.

Reducing stress

Fortunately, you can help your body relax to stop your body’s response to stress and to stabilize your hormones. Here are some tips for reducing stress:

Breathe: Making an effort to breathe in a slow and gentle pattern can calm the automatic nervous system and make you feel more relaxed.
Getting at least six to eight hours of sleep each night helps rejuvenate and relax your body, giving it time to decompress.

Exercise: Physical activity can boost your endorphins, clear your mind and improve sleep.

Eat nutritious foods: Sugary and fatty foods deplete your body of nutrients and can affect your mood negatively. Reach for healthy alternatives like crunchy carrots to relieve tension and bananas to satisfy your sugar craving.

Find support: Surround yourself with supportive people who can help you with stressful situations.

Avoid nicotine, and use caffeine and alcohol in moderation: These substances may make you feel better initially, but their effects can make you feel worse and lead to long-term health problems.

Coping with stress can be difficult. Finding ways to reduce and manage stress can help you take charge of your stress and your health. If you’re experiencing chronic stress or if would like more information, talk with your primary care physician. 

Dr. North is a ProMedica Physician who practices at Westgate Medical Group. For more info visit www.promedica.org/doctors.