Stress is part of our lives. It can motivate excellent performance or drive us to the other extreme. Stress can also increase levels of cortisol, a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, resulting in adverse effects on your brain, blood sugar, bones, muscles, immunity and appetite—to name just a few. Called “the stress hormone,” cortisol can also cause you to gain weight and increase your risk for an unhealthy heart.
Cortisol is one important hormone. It helps to support normal glucose metabolism, blood pressure levels, insulin release, immune function and inflammation levels—which means it can have some positive effects. When it’s released in small amounts, cortisol can help you quickly tap into energy, memory, immunity, equilibrium and lower your sensitivity to pain.
When you’re under chronic stress, however, increased levels of cortisol can wreak havoc by adversely affecting your brain, thyroid, blood sugar, bones, muscles, blood pressure, immunity and inflammation levels. Too much cortisol in the body, for instance, can result in foggy thinking, feeling run down, altered blood sugar levels and muscle discomfort. That’s not all, though.
Cortisol can also affect your appetite. Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco (USCF), Department of Psychiatry says, “Cortisol and insulin shift our preferences toward comfort foods.” Epel is a leader in the UCSF Center on Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment.
Lack of sleep is a stressor, too, and can be catalytic for negative metabolic changes that can lead to weight gain. Not getting enough shut eye can directly affect two important hunger hormones called leptin and ghrelin, says Kristen Knutson, Ph.D., a research associate who specializes in sleep and health at the University of Chicago’s Department of Medicine.
In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, participants who slept only four hours per night had an 18% decrease in leptin, the hormone that tells your brain you’ve had enough to eat and a 28% increase in ghrelin, the hormone indicating you’re hungry. Results of the study indicated that the sleep-deprived participants had a 24% appetite increase.
To add to the vicious cycle, increased cortisol levels can increase your girth—which is not good news for your heart. But that’s not all. Fat cells also produce cortisol, so if you happen to be stressed and overweight, then you could have double trouble.
Stressors can take on many forms, too. For example, women who were overweight gained weight when they had to deal with common stressors such as job demands, struggling to pay bills or family-relationship strains, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Managing your stress is important. Eating sensibly, getting enough sleep, exercising, journaling, breathing exercises and listening to music are just a few ways you can relax, thereby helping to keep your cortisol levels in balance—and avoiding the stress diet at all costs.