Stress really is a whole-brain-body reaction — and the biology of stress is complex. Stress effects health in many ways, and now researchers are honing-in on the biological connections between stress and weight.
When we are stressed, our bodies respond automatically, launching a cascade of reactions designed to prepare us for action. Those changes happen through a delicate interplay of perception and biology as chemical messengers in the form of stress hormones, ready the body to fight, flee or freeze.
Increased levels of stress hormones signal the need for fast fuel, and in the longer term, increase appetite and lead the body to store what is called “visceral fat” around the belly and internal organs (the type of fat most associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes). For many, the result of living with chronic stress includes actual weight gain, but it’s important to know that the tendency to store this type of internal fat can occur regardless of weight.
Not everyone responds to stress in the same way, and not all kinds of stressful experience lead to these sorts of metabolic changes, but for many individuals, negative, chronic stress increases the risk. In addition, when our evolutionary biology meets a modern culture of highly processed, high calorie foods, it can make coping feel like an uphill climb.
The good news is we know a lot about how to reduce stress and what specific habits and behaviors build resilience. A critical first step is understanding how stress changes brain, the body, and behavior so we can chart a more integrated, compassionate and sustainable course toward long-term health.
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