When was the last time you had a day with no stress?
Maybe when you were on a lovely two-week vacation…
But otherwise? Your days are likely full of stress. Stress creeps in at work, at home, and in your relationships. It seems to be an unavoidable fact of life.
Unfortunately, stress does more than make you feel a bit frazzled or – in cases of more severe stress – overwhelmed. Stress can wreak havoc on your body.
In fact, research has shown that stress can contribute to headaches, fatigue, upset stomach, anxiety and depression, chest pain, a change in sex drive, and muscle pain or tension.
Furthermore, stress can have a big impact on your nutrition – both on how you fuel your body and how your body processes what you consume.
Here are a few of the big ways stress affects your nutrition:
You Gain Weight
As if you need another thing to be stressed about… stress can lead to weight gain! This change in your weight is often due to a couple of different factors affecting your nutrition.
First, extreme stress often leads to a change in habits. In the short term, stress can cause a decrease in appetite, and you may even find yourself skipping meals.
In the long term, however, stress can have the opposite effect. Chronic stress that endures over a long period of time typically causes an increase in appetite and a particular craving for unhealthy foods.
This is because your body’s response to stress includes the hormone cortisol. Cortisol leads to an increase in appetite and a greater desire to eat.
Your levels of cortisol should fall after the stressful period is over, but if the stress persists, your cortisol levels remain high. This can lead to an increased appetite that doesn’t seem to go away.
Studies have also shown that when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to choose food that is high in fat, sugar, or both. This may be due to the increased cortisol levels, or maybe because of elevated insulin levels or a hunger hormone called ghrelin.
Now, your body isn’t telling you to eat sugary and fatty foods for nothing. Once ingested, these foods seem to counteract stress by dampening your body’s physical and emotional response to stress. That’s why these unhealthy foods are seen as “comfort foods” – they really do seem to comfort your body during stressful times.
However, eating these foods doesn’t actually do anything to resolve your stress. And of course, eating more fatty and sugary foods over a long period of time – as you might if you suffer from chronic stress – will lead to weight gain.
These foods high in sugar and fat typically don’t have much nutritional value. So you’re filling up on sugar and fat at the expense of starving your body of what it really needs – vitamins, minerals, and the essential nutrients you need to stay healthy.
And if that weren’t enough, another study found that high levels of stress resulted in a slower metabolism in women. A slower metabolism can lead to increased fat storage… and research has shown that stress even affects where your body stores fat.
When you are stressed, your body is more likely to pack on additional abdominal fat. This is bad news because abdominal fat is often more difficult to lose than other types of fat, and it is also more dangerous to your health. In fact, abdominal fat has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer.
So there’s no question – chronic stress leads to nutrition problems and weight gain, and it’s not good for your body.
You Forget Your Healthy Habits
If something is stressing you, you may try to shuffle around your schedule to take care of that stressor. A big project at work with a tight deadline? You work extra hours in an effort to get everything done.
Your kids misbehaving at home? You try to spend more time with them and figure out what the issue is.
Unexpected guests visiting your home this weekend? You stay up until 2 am cleaning your house.
That’s all totally understandable! However, the stress-induced changes in your schedule – which often leave you overworked and overwhelmed – can throw you out of your normal healthy habits.
Do you usually drink plenty of water throughout the day? You might forget to stay hydrated while you’re running around, taking care of everything that’s got you so stressed.
The same goes for eating healthy, nutritious meals and exercising. After all, if your choice is finishing that big work project or hitting the gym after work… you’ll probably stay and finish that work project, right?
Plus, stress has been shown to lead to a lack of focus. So you might not even remember that you meant to refill your water bottle and drink more water… and you might not realize that you completely skipped dinner in favor of quickly downing a slice of cheesecake.
While missing one workout or skimping on one meal isn’t the end of the world, extended periods of stress that lead to abandoning your healthy habits in the long term can take a toll on your health. In essence, stress is leading you to sabotage your health.
You Have Trouble Sleeping
If you’re stressed, I’m sure almost nothing sounds better than finally getting in bed and going to sleep.
So it really doesn’t seem fair that when you finally get to bed… you can’t sleep! It’s just another way stress is affecting your health.
Stress can lead to hyperarousal, which upsets your body’s balance between sleep and wakefulness. This in turn causes you to have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
And if you aren’t sleeping enough, you’re going to feel it. In addition to making you feel extra tired, a lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, lead to weight gain, contribute to depression and anxiety, cause lower libido, and increase your risk for diabetes and heart disease.
How to Handle Stress without Risking Your Health
Overall, it’s apparent that stress can have a huge impact on your nutrition, your weight, your sleep, and your overall health.
So how can you handle stress without sacrificing your health? Stress management looks different for everyone, but here are a few tips to get you started:
- Try some relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, massage, or tai chi.
- Stay regular with your exercise routine. Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress, improve sleep, and produce endorphins (which are “feel-good” hormones that help you cope with stress and pain).
- Spend time with family and friends. If you need to, talk to them about your stressors.
- Set aside time to enjoy hobbies like reading, painting, listening to music, or photography.
If you’re stressed, it’s important to avoid tobacco use and excess alcohol and caffeine, as these can harm your health, and only exacerbate your stress.
With these tips, you’re on the right track to reducing stress, improving your nutrition, and protecting your health!