During the holidays, it can be all too easy to overeat. But there’s more at play when it comes to packing on pounds this time of year. Another holiday tradition that can affect your weight is stress.
Here are some important things to know about your body’s response to stress:
We all have a built-in stress response. It’s a complicated set of physiological reactions that help keep you alive during dangerous situations. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:
You experience an acute stressor. Thousands of years ago, this could have been a tiger trying to eat you. Today, it could be the in-laws coming to stay with you over the holidays. In response, adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol into your bloodstream, initiating an increase in blood sugar used for immediate energy to fight, run or slam on your car brakes.
Once the stressor is dealt with, the cortisol leaves your system and things return to their normal metabolic state. But unfortunately today, many of us are constantly stressed, causing significant metabolic imbalances.
From when we wake up to when we go to bed, the average person deals with hundreds of low-grade stressful events, like rush hour traffic, projects with impossible deadlines, troubles with kids, spouses or pets.
According to Michael A. Smith, M.D. host of “Healthy Talk” on RadioMD.com and senior health scientist with the Life Extension Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this state of affairs is chronically elevating cortisol levels, which means blood sugar is constantly being mobilized for energy.
“And when you don’t burn the sugar, it gets stored as body fat,” says Dr. Smith. “This is just one of the metabolic imbalances caused by too much cortisol. There are many other problems caused by chronic stress that can pack on the fat.”
For example, too much cortisol, which results in a drop in serotonin, can drive sugar cravings and significantly increase appetite.