Consequences of Stress on Our Lives
(And What to Do About It)

Stress is a part of life, and it’s perfectly normal to experience it from time to time. However, when stress becomes chronic and long-term, it can have some serious consequences. One of the main hormones associated with stress is cortisol. When we experience stress, our body releases cortisol to help us cope with the stressor. However, if cortisol levels remain elevated for an extended period, it can lead to some nasty side effects.

As someone who has lived with long-term stress, I can attest to some of the not-so-fun effects of cortisol. Here are a few examples:

  • Weight gain: Have you ever noticed that you’re always hungry when stressed? That’s because cortisol increases your appetite, particularly for foods high in sugar and fat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached for a bag of chips or a cookie after a particularly stressful day. Cortisol also triggers your body to release glucose, which gives you the energy to deal with stress. But if you don’t actually use that energy, your body stores it as fat, and suddenly you’re not just stressed; you’re stressed and bloated. Yay! Over time, this can lead to weight gain, particularly around the midsection — giving us that oh-so-hard-to-get-rid-of muffin top.
  • Poor sleep: Cortisol is meant to help us wake up and get moving in the morning. As the day goes on, cortisol levels are supposed to decrease so that we can sleep at night. However, when we’re stressed, our cortisol levels can stay high and disrupt our sleep, leaving us tired and groggy. So not only are we stressed, but now we’re also exhausted. Not a winning combination.
  • Mood swings: Cortisol can affect our mood, causing irritability, anxiety, and even depression. You may get that constant feeling of being on edge and anxious, snapping at your loved ones for little reason. Just ask my poor husband and mom… my nickname used to be “Scary Eri.” Catchy right?
  • Weakened immune system: Chronic stress and high cortisol levels can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Recently, while launching my new practice, I broke out with shingles! Clearly, I was not managing my stress as well as I could have.
  • Impaired cognitive function: Prolonged exposure to cortisol can affect our memory and cognitive function. You may find yourself routinely forgetting where your keys are or maybe even your best friend’s name! Did that, done that.
  • Chronic health conditions: When we’re stressed, our body goes into survival mode, which means our body is constantly on high alert. This can lead to tension headaches, muscle aches, and even digestive issues. It can also increase our blood pressure, putting us at risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

So, what can we do about all of this? Well, the obvious answer is to try to reduce our stress levels. Easier said than done, I know. But we can start by practicing some self-care and self-love.

  1. Exercise: Regular exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or cycling, most days of the week.
  2. Get enough sleep: Getting enough restful sleep is crucial to manage stress. Aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night and establish a regular sleep routine.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques: Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can effectively reduce stress. Meditation has been the most effective tool in my stress-management arsenal. You can find a variety of apps to teach you how to meditate.
  4. Eat a balanced diet: Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) can help to regulate cortisol levels. As a bonus, it can also help you have a regular bowel movement, which can be a source of stress for some.
  5. Limit caffeine and alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol can both increase cortisol levels, so limiting your intake of these substances is important. Consider matcha tea or golden milk instead of reaching for your usual cup of joe. Green tea is high in compounds that help us regulate stress and inflammation, and golden milk, which has turmeric, is a potent inflammatory modulator.
  6. Get outside: Spend time in nature and get some fresh air! It’s amazing what a walk in the woods or along the beach can do for your spirit!
  7.  Connect with others: Spending time with loved ones and participating in social activities can help to reduce stress and improve cortisol levels.
  8. Laughter: Let’s not forget about the power of a good laugh. After all, they say laughter is the best medicine, right?
  9. Lastly, consider some natural remedies: Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, or L-theanine can help modulate our stress responses. Before taking any supplements, please discuss these with your healthcare provider, as some may interact with your current medications.

In conclusion, reducing stress is critical to long-term health and overall happiness. But, as life is ever-changing and throwing us new challenges, we must be consistent and vigilant with our stress management. Incorporate some of these tips and tricks, and I encourage you also to talk with a health provider if you find that your stress is not manageable.

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About the Author:
Dr. Eri Shimizu is a board certified in Internal Medicine Doctor and soon will be certified through the Institutes of Functional Medicine. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Bioengineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and graduated summa cum laude from Creighton University Medical School. She completed her Internal Medicine residency at UCLA and worked at a Los Angeles county hospital. In 2012, she returned to Hawaii and served as a Hospitalist at Maui Memorial Medical Center. Maui is now home with her husband, two children, and a fighting fish named Rainbow.

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