The flight or fight response refers to the body’s physiological responses to outside threats. In high stress reactions, the body conserves functional energy in order to survive by putting off important healthy functions. One of the ways that this happens is through the release of the hormone cortisol. If humans lived in the days of cave men and were threatened with being eaten by a saber tooth tiger, the flight or fight response would be an important evolutionary adaptation that would help increase the odds of surviving to reproduce. However, in the modern day environment lacking in saber tooth tigers, this exaggerated stress response is wreaking havoc on our bodies, our health and our waist lines.
Dealing with elevated cortisol levels requires first and foremost that everyone acknowledge and accept that stress is not only a real part of daily life, but that it can and should be dealt with as a legitimate health issue. Society has groomed the population to believe that not only should they be stressed out, they should refrain from complaining about it. When stress is accepted instead of dealt with, so are the health consequences.
Cortisol is the steroid hormone that a body produces from the adrenal cortex atop the kidneys in response to all of this stress that is considered standard. Cortisol inhibits insulin, raising blood sugar. It blocks the immune system to divert needed energy elsewhere for the stress response, making the person more susceptible to getting sick. It impedes fertility, increases blood pressure and affects metabolism, decreases bone formation and contributes to higher risks in every chronic disease category. While some of these might be functionally good ideas if the idea was to conserve energy for survival of an immediate threat, it is blocking major important functions of the body and contributing to all of the seemingly vague symptoms that plague the great majority of the population right at this very moment.
Additional factors contributing to high levels of cortisol seem to go hand in hand with chronic stress. Higher weight, sleep deprivation, caffeine, poor nutrition and over training due to low levels of glucose and starvation diets are some of these factors. It is easy to see how these elements could contribute to the momentum of the cortisol cycle, creating poor chances of wellness.
In addition to feeling bad, cortisol contributes to weight gain in two ways. The first is through literal visceral fat storage. The second is through chronically high blood sugar. If the sugar is high in the blood along with the suppression of insulin, then there is not enough sugar actually inside of the cells. This causes the cells to call out to the brain to release hunger signals because they are not fueled properly. This can contribute to overeating and the extra glucose is stored as fat.
Stress management can be addressed through the diet and lifestyle factor choices with a focus on anti-inflammatory foods and positive choices. Decreasing foods with high glycemic loads, reducing or eliminating saturated fats and transfats from the diet, reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol, increasing fiber intake, regular consistent exercise and increasing whole plant food consumption. Luckily these are the same recommendations for weight loss and this is no coincidence. So many of the factors of poor health are closely related and can all be addressed with similar healthy lifestyle choices.
When stress is finally recognized as a legitimate health issue, it can be handled as such. Effective stress management depends highly on the personal likes and dislikes of the person and what works for them. Stress management can be implemented through program support, mental health professional support, self-help books on the subject, sleep quality studies and support, breathing exercises, yoga, acupuncture and massage. Stress management for the individual might be any one or combination of methods.