How Stress and Cortisol Affect Our Bodies

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | September 26, 2016

With packed schedules and piles of commitments, we can’t help but feel stressed at times. However, on top of leaving us physically and mentally drained at the end of a long day, stress slowly eats away at our health. That’s because it triggers a series of reactions throughout our bodies that can result in serious health complications and diseases.

Cortisol is a hormone produced in our bodies and released when we’re stressed. It determines whether we use carbohydrates, fats, or protein to power through whatever task is at hand. Even small amounts of stress, such as waking up in the morning or being startled, can trigger the release of cortisol. It works alongside another hormone, called epinephrine. Together, they control what is known as our “fight or flight” response. When we’re stressed or in danger, these two biochemicals cause a cascade of actions within our bodies to assist with the stress response. They flood the body with glucose, inhibit insulin production, cause the arteries to narrow, and increase blood pressure under periods of stress.

We all seem to be under more and more stress in our fast-paced lives, and medical experts are noticing an increased release of cortisol in many individuals. Over time, a constant release of cortisol can lead to chronically elevated blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and increased hunger and overeating. This is the reason why excessive stress is known as one of the culprits of the obesity epidemic. Other deleterious effects of excess cortisol production include weight gain, visceral fat storage (the dangerous fat that surround our internal organs), decreased immunity, GI (gastrointestinal) distress, arterial plaque accumulation, high triglycerides, fertility problems, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and thyroid disease.

So what can we do about this? We all experience stress on a daily basis, therefore, we need to find ways to manage stress so that it doesn’t affect our health. We can normalize cortisol levels by decreasing the levels of inflammation in our bodies. But how do we do this? You guessed it – a healthy diet! Avoiding processed foods and foods high in refined sugar, saturated fat and trans fat, as well as reducing caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, are all simple ways to reduce inflammation in our bodies. Maintaining diets rich in nutrients, eating on a regular schedule, consuming enough fiber, and staying hydrated are all ways to control cortisol levels. Other positive lifestyle habits include getting enough sleep, regularly exercising, managing a healthy weight, and practicing stress management such as through meditation and yoga.

Awareness of stressors in our daily lives can ultimately help each one of us know how to best handle our reactions to stress. Stress isn’t going to disappear but we can certainly empower ourselves to not let it affect our health and wellness.

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Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/ Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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