Stress is a major offender when it comes to your health. In order to properly digest and assimilate your food, you need to be relaxed. When you eat, a division of your autonomic nervous system – a control system that works largely unconsciously to regulate bodily functions – needs to be switched on: namely, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is often called the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ system. But when you are stressed, another part of your autonomic nervous system is usually switched on – the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the ‘fight and flight’ response. As you can imagine, it is difficult to digest food when your body is on high alert!

Most people admit that when they’re under stress, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain. Whether it involves eating to meet an emotional need or grabbing fast food simply because there’s no time to prepare something health, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one. Prolonged stress wears us out and interferes with the digestive process, ultimately bringing down our health. But weight gain when under stress may also be at least partly due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances, which can actually promote weight gain when you’re stressed out.

Cortisol is a critical hormone that undertakes many actions in the body. It is typically secreted by the adrenal glands in a pattern called a diurnal variation, meaning that the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream vary depending upon the time of day – normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight. Cortisol is important for the maintenance of blood pressure as well as the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and it also stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite.

What does this have to do with stress? Cortisol has been termed the ‘stress hormone’ because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress. This disruption may not only promote weight gain but may also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips.

Whether or not a person’s stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress varies among individuals, with some persons being innately more ‘reactive’ to stressful events. Studies of women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion have shown that these women also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study demonstrated that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.

Exercise is the best method for lowering cortisol levels that have risen in response to stress, and it has the added benefit of burning calories to stimulate weight loss. Skipping caffeine, listening to relaxing music and hanging out with funny and positive people will also help you lower your cortisol levels, as will using vitamin C and bioflavonoid supplements.

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