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How Stress & Cortisol Affect the Metabolism

By Silvia Nena ; Updated August 14, 2017

Metabolism is the process by which your body converts your caloric intake into energy. A number of factors determine your body’s calorie burn, including caloric intake, physical activity, and basic body functions such as breathing, circulating blood and cell repair and regeneration. Stress caused by anything from a lack of sleep to a serious threat may affect the rate of your metabolism.

Body's Response To Stress

Your body is hardwired to respond to stressful situations through certain chemical reactions that are called the “fight or flight" response. It is a throwback to human beings’ early days when daily threats from aggressors and predators were real. Today, your body responds in the same way to daily stressors, like financial dilemmas, navigating rush hour traffic, family concerns and work deadlines. During a stressful event, your adrenal glands secrete a number of hormones, including cortisol.

Function of Cortisol

The hormone cortisol gears you up for action, whether it is to fight back or run away, by releasing sugar into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. Glucose is the primary source of energy for your muscles, including the brain. It helps you move fast and think fast. At the same time, the cortisol release triggers another set of responses to help you overcome the stressful situation, including suppressing immune system responses and slowing down digestive functions. If digestion is slowed, food may stay in the stomach too long which can cause ill health effects including intestinal blockage according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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How Does Cortisol Affect Metabolism?

Constant elevated levels of stress can lead to sleeplessness, depression and obesity. Cortisol affects metabolism by how glucose is formed. However, stress-related weight gain is primarily due to a combination of low physical activity and increased caloric intake, likely triggered by symptoms of prolonged stress, like depression and fatigue. Excessive cortisol in the body can cause a serious condition called, Cushing’s Syndrome, a cluster disorder with symptoms that include weight gain, depression, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Increasing Your Metabolism and Controlling Stress

A primary way to increase your metabolism and reduce stress is through exercise. Cardiovascular activities such as walking burns calories. Don’t forget to hit the weight room, too. Your body burns more calories maintaining muscle mass than fat. This is why resistance training distinctly influences metabolic rate. The stress-reducing effects of exercise have also been well documented. The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise per day to reduce stress and improve overall health.

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