When you’re in a stressful situation, your body responds by releasing a surge of stress hormones — this is called your stress response. If you’re stressed a lot, your stress hormones remain high which can lead to weight gain, low energy, poor sleep, mood problems, and high blood pressure. There are lots of lifestyle changes you can make to get your stress levels under control.

 

The stress response

If you’re in a stressful situation, your body responds by releasing a surge of hormones to help you cope with the situation. This is called your fight-or-flight response, where your body either stays to fight off the threat or runs from it.

Normally, your stress hormones rise temporarily and then drop back down to normal. This is a healthy response and can protect you from danger. Unfortunately, your body also reacts in the same way to stressors that aren’t really dangerous, like work stress or traffic jams. So if you suffer from prolonged (chronic) stress, your stress response system is always fired-up. This means your body is constantly exposed to stress hormones.

Stress hormones

Your body releases two hormones when you’re stressed:

  • adrenaline
  • cortisol — your main stress hormone

These hormones give you a burst of new energy and strength. If you’re often stressed, your stress hormones remain high — mainly cortisol. Constant exposure to these hormones can cause a lot of damage to your body.

Side effects of chronic stress

Long-term, raised cortisol levels can lead to:

  • weight gain
  • sugar cravings
  • digestive issues
  • high blood pressure
  • difficulty sleeping
  • fatigue
  • poor concentration
  • irritability
  • a weakened immune system

It can also increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, weak bones, and mood disorders, like depression. In rare cases, very high cortisol levels can lead to a serious condition called Cushing’s disease.

Over time, chronic stress makes your body less able to cope with stress and you stop producing enough cortisol. This is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) dysfunction. This will cause you to feel extremely tired. You might also feel dizzy, lose weight, feel nauseous, weak, have tummy pain, and headaches. If you have these symptoms it’s important to see a doctor immediately.

Testing your stress levels

A simple saliva test can be done to measure your cortisol levels, which can help indicate how stressed you are.

Tips to lower your stress levels

There are lots of lifestyle changes you can make to lower your stress and cortisol levels:

  • Mindfulness-based practices like yoga or meditation can reduce anxiety, improve wellbeing, and lower your cortisol levels.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, like listening to music or dancing. This can reduce stress and lower high cortisol levels.
  • Connect with family and friends. Having better social support can help lower cortisol levels. Some research even shows that people with a strong spiritual faith have healthier cortisol levels — because they usually have more community support.
  • Get enough sleep and take a nap. Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. A short nap can help reverse the effects of sleep loss on cortisol levels.
  • Exercise reduces stress. Aim for at least 75 vigorous minutes of activity or 150 minutes moderate aerobic activity each week. Including some strength training is important too.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and essential fatty acids (found in oily fish). These are full of essential nutrients that keep your brain healthy and help balance your hormones.
  • Eat frequent regular meals and avoid refined carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar levels stable. This helps prevent your cortisol levels from spiking and also reduces your risk of diabetes.
  • Drink plenty of water and avoid soft drinks. Green tea is also a good option as it contains L-theanine which helps to relax your mind.

References:

Björntorp, P., & Rosmond, R. (2000). Obesity and cortisol. Nutrition16(10), 924-936.

Chandola, T., Brunner, E., & Marmot, M. (2006). Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study. Bmj332(7540), 521-525.

Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology78(2), 169.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research57(1), 35-43.

Van Eck, M., Berkhof, H., Nicolson, N., & Sulon, J. (1996). The effects of perceived stress, traits, mood states, and stressful daily events on salivary cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine58(5), 447-458.

Torres, S. J., & Nowson, C. A. (2007). Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Nutrition23(11-12), 887-894.

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