WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Levels of cortisol, or stress hormone, can be measured by collecting hair samples. This method of measurement captures long-term stress and is linked to increased levels of obesity.1
WHY THIS MATTERS
Stress is a feeling we all experience stress in our day-to-day lives. Described as felling overwhelmed, worried or worn-down, stress is defined as any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.2 There are two types of stress: eustress and distress.3 Eustress is a positive, driving force that enables one stay motivated and productive and provides the determination to get the job done. Distress, on the other hand, causes a person to become overwhelmed and occurs when tasks or responsibilities become too much to cope with.3 Feelings of distress cause physiological symptoms such as elevated heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and tension and causes behavioral responses such as overeating, loss of appetite, drinking, smoking and other negative coping mechanisms.3
Chronic stress, and chronically elevated levels of cortisol, may lead to obesity through fat accumulation. When the body is under stress, cortisol causes the body to dump sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream. This evolutionary response served our ancestors well in “fight or flight” situations by providing the energy necessary to take action or bolt at the first sight of potential.4 When unused, this circulating glucose accumulates as abdominal fat and makes its home in visceral fat deposits. Also problematic is our shift in preference towards high-calorie, less than nutritious foods when under stress.1 Recent research shows that this combination of elevated blood glucose and tendencies towards high-calorie foods is a recipe for weight gain and obesity in those who experience chronic stress.
Cortisol levels are typically measured through, blood, saliva or urine samples. These samples can be used to capture momentary cortisol concentrations but do not capture exposure over a prolonged period of time. To more fully reveal the connection between stress and obesity, researchers collected hair samples to evaluate the impact of long-term cortisol exposure on weight and obesity over time.
Information for this research study is from the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing (ELSA), which began in 2002 and included men and women over 50 years of age. Participants completed annual surveys and every two years completed interviews, questionnaires and a health assessment, which collected information on health status, height, weight, waist circumference and included hair samples. Data included in this analysis is from a specified 4-year period of the study, from 2008-2012, and includes information on 2,527 individuals. The average participant was 68 years old and overweight; 10% of participants were smokers, 10% had diabetes and 40% had arthritis.
RESULTS OF THE STUDY
The analysis found that hair cortisol was significantly connected to body weight, body mass index and waist circumference. Obese participants had significantly higher hair cortisol concentrations than participants of a normal-weight. Normal-weight and overweight groups had similar hair cortisol concentration levels. Higher cortisol levels were also associated with a persistence of obesity over time, with obese individuals having higher concentrations in each sample than those who were of normal weight, overweight or obese at only one assessment. The study did not determine causality however, meaning it is still unclear whether obesity causes raised cortisol levels in obese individuals or if chronic stress causes elevated cortisol levels, which in turn cause obesity.
This study brings valuable insight into our understanding of stress and weight gain by demonstrating that long-term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol is associated with higher levels of adiposity, or body tissue used to store fat. Individuals who experience chronic stress and do not learn to reduce or manage stress are at risk of negatively affecting long-term health and wellbeing. Chronic stress increases a person’s risk of developing many health issues, such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleeping disorders, memory and concentration impairment and weight gain.5
Learning to reduce and manage stress is not an easy task, but your physical and mental health is worth the effort! No matter where you are on the journey to a more stress-free lifestyle, even the smallest steps towards stress reduction can reap big benefits. The first and most important step in reducing stress is identifying stress triggers. Once you’ve identified triggers, you can begin finding creative and sustainable ways to reduce or eliminate these triggers.
Diet and exercise are important elements to have in your stress management toolkit. Eating a nutritious diet, filled with fruits and vegetables, contributes to greater happiness, wellbeing and overall life satisfaction. Physical activity and exercise help to reduce stress by helping to clear the mind, improving sleep, increasing self-confidence, uplifting mood and releasing the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins.6 By eating well and incorporating regular physical activity into your daily routine to reduce stress, maintaining a healthy weight becomes much more attainable.
More Info on Managing Stress
Anxiety and Depression Association of America – Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress
HelpGuide.org – Stress Management
Mayo Clinic – Relaxation Techniques
Harvard Health Publications – Mini-Relaxation Exercises
Video Center: Selection. Storage. Preparation.
How Many Cups Do You Need?
Key Nutrients in Fruits & Vegetables
Fruit & Veggie Database