Despite its reputation, stress can be positive. When you’re working toward a goal on deadline, for instance, stress can help you stay focused amidst a million distractions. However, dealing with too much stress for a significant period of time can be draining—and might even lead to issues like obesity, according to a new study from University College London.
The study measured cortisol levels in over 2,500 men and women. Traditional methods of measuring cortisol, like blood or saliva, can vary based on time of day or immediate circumstances. However, the researchers measured cortisol levels in locks of hair, representing about two months of growth and accumulated levels of cortisol over time. They also checked participants’ BMI, weight, and waist circumference.
Higher Levels of Cortisol is Linked to Higher BMIs
They found that higher levels of accumulated cortisol was typically associated with higher BMIs and larger waist circumferences, indicating chronically high cortisol and extended periods of stress can lead to obesity. Carrying excess weight around the middle can also put you at risk for issues like heart disease and diabetes.
“We know how cortisol works in the body,” says Ken Yeager, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program, and too much can dull your performance. “This hormone can have negative impacts like memory loss, it can be a barrier to learning, it can lead to weight gain and elevated blood pressure,” he says. “Some have speculated that cortisol levels can trigger or increase risk for anxiety or depression, and can in certain cases lead to decreased life expectancy.”
Yeager says that cortisol can also “mobilize triglycerides from storage” and relocate them to visceral fat cells— those cells that lay under the muscle, deep in the abdomen, which can make weight even harder to lose. This is why it’s important to recognize and get a handle on chronic stress.
Good Stress, Bad Stress—Both Can Lead to Increased Cortisol Levels
Of course, again, stress is unavoidable. Some is okay, and actually motivating. Working hard at the office can actually give you the energy to expend on your workout. So, how do you know when you’re dealing with too much? “Here is the most realistic answer I have ever heard,” Yeager says. “If stress is causing problems in your life, then your stress is a problem.”
First, slow down and ask yourself if those problems are there. Shockingly, they can be easy to miss. “In 1936, a Canadian biochemist named Hans Selye released findings on stress and eustress (a.k.a. ‘good stress’), outlining his general adaptation syndrome,” Yeager explains. “This means we react to stress, good or bad, with alertness and alarm—the fight-or-flight response. We work harder to overcome that stress or eustress, or we ‘adapt’ and overcome, but the only the reward for this is more work. So, you experience more alarm, and the cycle continues until exhaustion sets in and our body begins to break down.”
For an illustration, think about it this way. Let’s say your boss promotes you after you perform really well on a series of assignments. Your reward might be a higher position and greater paycheck, but it’s also usually more responsibility, too. And more stress. So, if you see this cycle in your life and have resorted to negative coping mechanisms—like overeating, drinking too much or spending too much money—it’s time to make some changes.
Use Steps, Meditation, and Friends to Keep Cortisol Levels in Check
Yeager has tons of suggestions, but it starts with physical activity. “Start your day by taking a walk, at home or on a treadmill at the gym,” he says. “A minimum of 30 minutes per day can protect you from the release and build-up of cortisol in the system. Or you can pick any aerobic activity, like swimming, jogging, biking, or anything that gets your blood pumping. This creates an environment that functions as a release for the body’s ‘fight’ response.”
You can also counter the mayhem with any type of meditation. “Taking 10 to 15 minutes per day to clear your mind can help you to calm your central nervous system,” Yeager says. “This is especially true before bed, where taking 10 minutes to sit in a darkened room with no distractions, clearing your head and slowing your respirations to the lowest comfortable levels, will help you to fall asleep.”
Beyond that, don’t forget to engage in positive emotional experiences to counterbalance your stress. “Have a good group of friends, people you can talk with and gain reality checks from,” Yeager suggests. “This helps lower cortisol levels. Being social leads to heightened levels of ‘universality,’ understanding you are not alone in the day-to-day challenges. Studies have shown that social isolation can lead to heightened levels of cortisol.” Laughing with your pals can also reduce levels of that stress hormone. “Keeping a sense of humor allows you to be less reactive,” Yeager explains. “Often if you can laugh, you won’t have to cry. Laughter helps keep things in perspective.”
Beyond that, just remember to seek out enjoyable activities that engage your positive emotional spectrum. “Neuroscience has shown that finding ways to emote—whether it’s music, painting or poetry—is a way to release your emotions that triggers a cascade of positive neurotransmitters.” To remain healthy, you can never be “too busy” for those mood-boosting experiences.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.