The stress response is our “save your life” response and we wouldn’t be here without it. If we were being chased by a lion, the adrenals would produce a small amount of cortisol which would give you the instant energy you need to save your life – hopefully!
The cortisol also does a few other things that made great sense for ancient humans, but proposes problems for humans today. It causes the liver and the fats cells (mostly around the belly) to release sugar or glucose into the bloodstream; raises heart rate; raises blood pressure; makes you hungry and interrupts sleep.
In discussing blood sugar, heart health, sleep and cravings, you are describing the majority of health concerns we see in the United States today – all related to cortisol!
Fortunately for ancient humans, being chased by a lion was not a daily occurrence, or at least we presume that it wasn’t. Today, with busy lifestyles being the norm, stressors are steady, chronic and constant, which can keep cortisol levels elevated for weeks and months at a time.
Cortisol triggers cravings for comfort foods and releases extra glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream. This in turn triggers the release of excess insulin. While the insulin is trying to drive glucose into the cells, chronic stress delivers way more glucose than we need. The result: the excess glucose gets stored in its favorites spots: hip and belly fat (visceral fat), which is four times more sensitive to cortisol than the fat under the skin (subcutaneous fat). (1)
As if this weren’t bad enough, chronically high insulin levels tell the brain not to release another hormone called leptin, which tells the body to stop eating. Without leptin, the brain gets a starvation message which drives us to crave quick-energy comfort foods which overshoot the energy runway and end up being stored as fat. (2) This starvation response in turn sends a message to spare any reserve energy by being less active, which is also linked to fat storing. (2)
Chronically high cortisol levels are also related to poor sleep quality. Lack of sleep triggers the release of the “hunger hormone” called ghrelin. In the absence of regular sleep, the stomach and pancreas produce ghrelin to stimulate appetite, often resulting in weight gain. (3)
Bottom line: We are not wired to thrive on long term, constant and chronic stress. Helping the body reset itself to enjoy a stress-free lifestyle is one of the hallmarks of Ayurveda.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention some of the research on one of the world’s best adaptogens, or stress fighters. Ashwagandha has been shown to decrease cortisol levels by 26% in one study. (4) In fact, it is so balancing for the nervous system that it can be taken before bed to support healthy sleep, and in the morning to support and handle the stress of the day without the stress-fat chain reaction.
1. Epel, E. (2000). Stress and Body Shape. Psychosomatic Medicine 62: 623-32
2. Meitus-Synder, M. (2008). Childhood obesity). Annual Review of Medicine. 59: 119-34
3. Beccuti, G. Sleep and Obesity. Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 14: 419-24
4. Jain S, Shukla SD, Sharma K, Bhatnagar M. Neuroprotective effects of Withania somnifera Dunn. in hippocampal sub-regions of female albino rat. Phytother Res. 2001 Sep;15(6):544-8.
Source: Lieberman, D. The Story of the Human Body. 2013. New York. Pantheon Press. 266-70