How Stress Impacts Health

Let's talk Cortisol!

(but first, please allow me to share my experience with you)

Stress. We all have it. A little stress is normal and part of living. Sometimes though, circumstances beyond our control can derail us--like the loss of a loved one, a chronic illness, or a big move. In fact, when working with clients, I've found that major stressors like these--along with putting too much on their "plate"--derail healthy habits the most.

My personal experience...

So, it was time for me to get my yearly labs drawn for my cholesterol and my blood sugar. I expected AMAZING results given I run 15+ miles a week, do regular strength training, and I am fueling my body better than ever. My results for my cholesterol were the best they have ever been! I raised my HDL ("good" cholesterol) by 10 points! HOWEVER, my blood sugar was on the highest end of "normal". WHAT?! I'm 38, at a healthy body weight, in great physical shape, with a near zero family history of Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. What is going on?! Then I had an OH...moment.

I have an extremely high-stress level at the moment. Like--10 out of 10 high. I haven't been under this amount of stress for a very, very long time. When Aiden was diagnosed with autism, and the year and 1/2 we struggled with my husband's unemployment were so rough, but this stress is very different. I can't seem to shake it or heal from it, and that is why my blood sugar is out of my "normal" range. I'll bet you a brownie on it!

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate stress. When Cortisol is high, it signals the body to release energy from carbohydrate, protein, and fat and inhibits insulin to raise blood sugar to respond to the stressor. Cortisol narrows the arteries to increase blood flow, so heart rate and blood pressure will also elevate. This is an important defense mechanism if you need to complete a task quickly, but it can cause harm when the stressor is chronic.

Here is the breakdown:

Cortisol stress hormone


releases energy from carbs, protein, fat


inhibits insulin to raise blood sugar for energy


increases blood flow by narrowing arteries


heart rate and blood pressure elevate

Chronic HIGH Cortisol Levels Lead to:

*high blood sugar and insulin resistance

*weight gain due to increased fat storage

*increased appetite for high-calorie foods

*immune system suppression and illness

*gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, upset stomach, constipation) as your body diverts blood from the digestive tract to the arteries instead of the gut

*heart disease from prolonged high blood pressure

*disrupted sex hormones

*and the potential for insomnia, chronic fatigue, thyroid disorders, dementia, and depression

As I reflect on this list now, I recognize many of these in my own life. While I normally sleep very well on a sleep schedule (and limiting inflammatory foods), suddenly insomnia is a real problem. I got sick for the first time in a very long time. Food cravings were heightened, and my pants started to feel tight. For the first time in my life, I understood anxiety.

Stress can cause physical symptoms throughout the body--just like inflammatory foods can cause headaches, digestive complaints, eczema, and more!

How to Manage Stress/Lower Cortisol Levels:

*Get adequate SLEEP to help regulate hormones --that is hard to do when you have insomnia related to stress! Do everything YOU can do to get to bed on time and meet your needs for rest. Make sure electronic devices before bed are not interpreting your sleep cycle. Have a set bed and wake up time--even on weekends. If you wake up in the middle of the night, be mindful that eating at this time is not necessary, but very likely.

*EXERCISE in 10-minute bursts and/or for a 30-minute session most days to help use up the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins released during stress. Don't skip this one! Prioritize and schedule your day! While some people lose their appetite during extreme stress, most people will do the opposite and gain weight. Work off some of that energy with an activity that you enjoy. Bring a friend who can make you laugh, which can increase those feel good chemicals in the brain just like sugar does!

*NUTRITION--Eat Smart! You WILL have more cravings for high calorie, poor quality foods, but with some planning on your part, you can find balance between quality foods and treats. Keep the treats out of the house, plan some quality meals, limit food away from home to once a week (or less), and practice MINDFUL eating. Are you tired and upset or truly hungry? I know if I'm not hungry for fruit (insert favorite quality, sweet food), then I'm not truly hungry--I just want sugar.

*Focus on whole foods--learn proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, omega 3's from fish, walnuts, cold pressed canola oil, and flax. Limit saturated and trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils), alcohol (which depletes B-vitamins), and caffeine. Skip the artificial sweeteners and food additives. This helps reduce inflammation and leaky gut, which can help support mental and digestive health.

*Make a LIST of "go to's" when you feel you can't manage the discomfort of stress. I find that going for a run, organizing, and cleaning works best for me. Staying active keeps my mind focused on the task vs. the discomfort of the stressor. Find what works for you.

What changes can you make to recognize and manage stress?

Marian McCormick RDN, CPT, CLT is a Dietitian and Fitness Professional who specializes in women's fitness, wellness, and digestive health. She loves to run, lift weights, and spend precious time with her 4 boys! Learn more at

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