In a busy world, with so much work and responsibilities, it can cause a lot of stress to us. When a person is stressed, their brain works differently. According to a new study, researchers at the Ohio State University shows that stress is an important risk factor for weight gain. This means that the effects of stress go beyond anxiety and depression to increase in appetite and stress-induced weight gain. However, the good news is that research also shows that there are ways, by which we can break this cycle, reduce the stress and avoid weight gain.
The Stress Hormone: Cortisol
Cortisol, also known as stress hormone is produced by the adrenal glands (located near the kidneys). This hormone is involved with the following functions:
- Maintaining the ability to process sugars
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for maintaining blood sugar levels
- Fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism to maintain blood glucose (gluconeogenesis)
- Increased immune responses
- Relieves inflammation
Cortisol levels normally fluctuate throughout the day and night in a circadian rhythm that peaks during the mornings and reaches its lowest around afternoon and evening. In people that work in night shifts, the pattern is reversed. The timing of cortisol release is therefore linked to daily activity patterns. Also, excess cortisol is released which helps the body to respond to stress in the correct manner. The normal level of cortisol in the blood during the morning is in the range of 138–635 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L). During afternoons, the normal range is around 83-441 nmol/L.
Effects of Cortisol in stress:
Cortisol is secreted in higher levels when we are faced with stress. Cortisol is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body. These include the following:
- A quick burst of energy
- Heightened memory
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Maintained homeostasis in body
Cortisol secretion is controlled by three regions of our body- hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland. First, when the brain recognizes a threat, a group of cells in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH causes the pituitary gland to secrete another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), into the bloodstream. The presence of high levels of ACTH in the bloodstream is detected by the adrenal gland and stimulates the secretion of cortisol.
Some of the consequences of high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods are obesity, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart diseases, and sleep disturbances among many others. In contrast, low levels of cortisol occurring due to chronic fatigue results in lack of stamina, emotional paralysis, to name a few.
Culprit for weight gain
Under stress, eating becomes an activity that is both easy to do and it is comforting at the same time. Our urge to eat high-carbohydrate food (i.e. sugary or starchy foods) is driven by cortisol. Eating in response to stress thus becomes a behavioral habit. Our sedentary lifestyle does not help in working off any of the extra energy acquired from all that extra food supply. The unfortunate results of our stressful lives, therefore, include belly fat, expanded waistline, and obesity!
How NOT to gain weight during Stress
Exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones and instead stimulates the production of endorphins (or chemicals in the brain that primarily functions as mood up-lifters). Simple breathing exercises and meditation too are time-honored ways to reduce stress.
Raising the physical activity and building exercise into our day to combat stress is essential if we want to live a healthy and fulfilling life into old age. Keeping in mind that stress happens as a part of life and learning the right way to respond to stress is crucial.