The effect of too much stress – and too much cortisol
When you become stressed the immediate effect of cortisol is to dampen your appetite, but this only lasts for a short time, a matter of minutes. As cortisol levels rise, your appetite increases. In evolutionary terms, the purpose of this was to shut down your appetite while you dealt with the threat, and then increase it to replenish the energy reserves you used up dealing with the threat.
In today’s context, if you suffer prolonged periods of stress, above-average levels of cortisol will remain in your bloodstream. This means your appetite will remain high with the result that you will constantly feel hungry. You then eat to satisfy your hunger. As a consequence your insulin level will rise, causing it to do what it does best – store energy. Insulin stuffs more fat into your fat cells. You put on weight.
The hunger you experience from too much cortisol has a particular effect. It pressures you into craving foods that deliver lots of instant energy. So you crave sugar. Calorie-dense, fatty, sugary snacks from vending machines have a particular appeal. They’re the ones that do you the most harm.
If that wasn’t bad enough, prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol also reduces the secretion of certain anabolic hormones. The effect of this is that your body loses muscle and your metabolic rate is reduced – that’s the rate your body breaks down and processes energy.
When you suffer from prolonged periods of stress, levels of cortisol rise, but levels of insulin rise too. This sends a powerful message to your fat cells to store all the energy they can and to hold onto your fat stores. In our evolutionary past, this was just in case there was anotherthreat- another sabre-toothed tiger round the corner. The effect of this is to reduce your body’s ability to call on its fat stores to use as energy. Your energy storage parking attendant becomes obstinate and unhelpful and you retain fat that you need to burn.
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