Are you stressed out? Is it hard for you to lose weight? Is there excess fat hanging around in your belly area?
If you answered yes to those questions, exploring the relationship between those problems is crucial to your health and well-being.
And even if you didn’t answer yes to all three questions, it is important to understand how stress can harm your body.
That’s because your body’s main stress hormone – cortisol – can rise to damaging levels when you experience stress.
Cortisol (a steroid hormone) helps fuel the fight-or-flight response – the psychological loop that fires you up to fight or run for your life when facing danger.
Think of it as your body’s built-in alarm system. When you are faced with immediate danger, increases in cortisol help you respond. The hormone works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear.
Cortisol also handles other important bodily tasks, explains WebMD.
- Manages how your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins
- Keeps inflammation down
- Regulates your blood pressure
- Increases your blood sugar (glucose)
- Controls your sleep/wake cycle
- Boosts energy so you can handle stress and restores balance afterward
Your hypothalamus and pituitary gland (both located in your brain) can sense if your blood contains the right level of cortisol. If the level is too low, your brain adjusts the amount of hormones it makes. Your adrenal glands read those signals, and then fine-tune the amount of cortisol they release. Cortisol’s primary function is to increase blood sugar levels so your brain, muscles, and organs have enough fuel to get you through a stressful situation.
Cortisol receptors are located in most cells in your body, and their job is to receive and use the hormone in different ways. Your needs will vary from day to day, and when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.
If you are under constant stress and your cortisol levels remain high, health problems including anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration issues, digestive troubles, and sleep struggles can all result.
In addition to the problems listed above, another undesirable consequence may occur: high cortisol levels can increase the amount of fat you hold in your belly. This is called visceral fat, and it is particularly nasty.
I described visceral fat previously, in an article about the dangers of drinking soda:
Visceral fat – also known as “deep fat” – wraps around your internal organs, including your liver, pancreas, kidneys, and intestines. It is much more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (the fat that you can see – the “inch you can pinch”). That’s because visceral fat (which gets its name from viscera, which refers to the internal organs in the abdomen) affects how our hormones function and is thought to play a larger role in insulin resistance – which may increase Type 2 diabetes and heart disease risk.