You wake up, shower, do your hair, get breakfast ready, get your kids to school, get a workout in, get to work, pick up kids from school, take kid #1 to soccer, take kid #2 to football, coordinate a ride home for kid #2, pick up kid #1, get home, get dinner ready, pay bills, get lunches made for tomorrow, answer emails and finally, you get to bed!
Give or take a few tasks on this list and you have a typical day for many individuals. Throw in a family emergency or some car troubles and stress levels can hit a boiling point. What does this mean for our health? Or for your body composition?
First of all, not all stress is bad. A stress free life can be detrimental to health due to the inability to react to various life challenges, so avoiding stress is not the answer. Instead, your reaction to stress determines the effect it can have on our bodies.
For example, if you react to stress as a challenge you have control over, a “fight” hormone (norepinephrine) is released. If this stressor is increased or perceived as something that takes control of you, then a “flight/anxiety” hormone (epinephrine) is released. If a given stressor is prolonged and/or creates a feeling of hopelessness, you will become more stressed and eventually feel defeated.
Our brains have the ability to select the fight, flight, or “defeat” response based on how we perceive these stressors in life. Although these pathways work together, they each uniquely affect the body. Prolonged stress and feelings of defeat activate sections of the brain, which result in the release of cortisol from the kidneys. The “defeat” response and subsequent release of excess cortisol may lead to increased fat storage, increased abdominal fat around organs, breakdown of muscle tissue, and suppression of immune function.
Cortisol is a hormone in the body that is released by fasting, food intake, exercise, waking up and psychosocial stressors. To regulate your body’s energy, it selects the type and amount of protein, fat, or carbohydrate needed to meet the demands placed upon your body. While normal cortisol levels are vital to life, chronic excess cortisol levels are believed to be detrimental.
Cortisol can be detrimental to body composition because of its role in the breakdown of muscle tissue for conversion into carbohydrate AND the direct effect on fat storage in stressed individuals. The breakdown in muscle has ramifications to metabolic rate, since muscle mass is one of the main contributors to metabolism. The lower your metabolism, the fewer calories you burn. The exact reason for your body storing more fat when you have chronically high cortisol levels isn’t clear but, like most things in your body, there are often a variety of factors that lead to a given outcome.
One thing that is clear is the potential for increased fat in the abdomen and surrounding the organs. Cortisol has the ability to mobilize fat from all regions of the body. Since cortisol is most active in the abdominal region close to organs, more deposits are made in this area. Increased fat stores in those areas increases risk for cardiovascular disease, not to mention they don’t look all that great either!
The best way to reduce chronically high cortisol levels is to reduce stress. Those absurd commercials cortisol blocker supplements that supposedly suppress cortisol release won’t help you (there is no evidence that they work and even if they did, cortisol levels are not something you want to alter without medical supervision).
One thing that will work is exercise! Numerous studies show that exercise can significantly reduce stress so the next time you think you’re too stressed or too busy to workout, think again. It may be the best thing you can do for your midsection.
Photo credit: emidiobautista