How does stress affect metabolism?

Michael B. Finkelstein, MD
Internal Medicine
At any given time, there are an untold number of chemical reactions taking place in our cells -- among other things, digesting and assimilating nutrients, converting those nutrients into energy, and eliminating the rest as waste. The sum total of all these chemical reactions is known as metabolism. When we are in balance on every level -- physical, emotional, mental and spiritual -- our metabolism is in peak form, in turn utilizing calories in the most efficient way possible. When we are out of balance, however, on any or all of these levels, our metabolism is compromised. We store calories as fat instead of burning them as energy, and we therefore need excess calories to accomplish the same metabolic functions.

That’s because our bodies were designed for survival in the wilderness -- where we were likely to have excess food one day and no food the next. In response, we developed the capacity to overeat and store the excess as fat, to be utilized during leaner periods. Our bodies have not quite caught up to the modern era, however, so our brains are unable to distinguish between the metabolic imbalance caused by insufficient food and that caused by stress. So when we are on a tight deadline for work, or when we are stuck in the traffic jam from hell, or when we have just broken up with our romantic partner, our bodies send out hunger signals and can even go into starvation mode, compelling us to inhale that pint of New York Super Fudge Chocolate Chunk ice cream -- medical advice and common sense be damned.

In other words, to our primal brain, spiritual, emotional and mental hunger equals physical hunger. As would be the case if we had not eaten for days, we feel desperate cravings for sugars (including carbs) and fats -- pizza, cookies, ice cream, and other classic comfort foods. Not only are we driven to gorge on these foods, but typically we also are unable to stop ourselves from doing so. The higher functions of our brain, such as our will power and the intellectual understanding that we do not really “need” an entire hot apple pie (Right! Now!), are “hijacked” by the primal functions of our brain. We are in survival mode.

When you are stressed, you end up with elevated stress hormones, especially Cortisol. During stress Cortisol can easily take over different hormones in the body. Cortisol affects metabolism by how glucose is formed. Stress-related weight gain can be due to a combination of low physical activity and increased caloric intake.


Pam Grout
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

Being stressed out is one of the main hazards of a healthy metabolism. How many times have you started a diet and done pretty well until some stressful event occurs. When the body is faced with a stress of any kind - be it a simple traffic jam or boss - it responds by dumping anti-stress (adrenal) hormones into the body. The most common is norepinephrine. This is a good thing except when your norepinephrine reserve is depleted, your body's metabolism screeches to a halt - or at least slows way down. What's worse, when the norepinephrine levels are low, insulin, the hunger hormone, pours in. I know I 'm starting to sound like a broken record, but deep breathing is also the best remedy for stress.

Perhaps deep breathing sounds too good to be true. But give it a try. By learning to breathe properly, by fully oxygenating your cells, you can reset your metabolism to a much higher level.

Jumpstart Your Metabolism: How To Lose Weight By Changing The Way You Breathe

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Jumpstart Your Metabolism: How To Lose Weight By Changing The Way You Breathe

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.