Vail Daily column: Chronic stress affects your whole body |

Vail Daily column: Chronic stress affects your whole body

Mary Horn
Living With Vitality
Vail, CO Colorado

What do you mean when you say you are stressed? Do you ever give much thought to what happens to your body physiologically under stress or how it affects your food choices? What is the difference between acute and chronic stress? The answers to these questions will help you understand how your body is handling or not handling daily challenges.

Clinicians and researchers have debated the definition of stress for many years. Stress may come from your job demands, health challenges or financial issues. Or, stress may be internalized in the form of worry, regret or anxiety. These all place pressure on the mind, body and spirit. And any stress, whether real or imagined, rational or not, produces a stress response in your body.

The acute stress response is an automatic response to a stressful event. It is survival – “fight or flight.” This response originally evolved to protect us from harm.

Our body responds to stress from two different sources: the adrenal glands and the sympathetic nervous system. Hormones coming from the hypothalamus and pituitary stimulate the adrenal glands; the adrenal glands flood your bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol. At the same time, the sympathetic nervous system sends messages to your nerve endings, which creates an instantaneous shift from a resting state to a state of alarm. When the crisis is over, the sympathetic nervous system returns to a resting state. Unfortunately, the cortisol remains in your system for a much longer period of time. And, if your day is full of frequent small stressors, the constant activation of the adrenal glands maintains high levels of cortisol, creating the physiology of chronic stress.

Chronic stress means chronic exposure to cortisol. High levels of cortisol disrupt many of the body’s systems. For example, increased secretion of cortisol is associated with elevated levels of blood sugar, high insulin levels, hypertension, changes in your blood lipid profile, lower metabolism, disrupted sleep, and a compromised immune system, just to name a few.

Recent research examines how cortisol affects our fat cells and our brain. Chronically high levels of cortisol disrupt several neurotransmitters including serotoin, dopamine and neuropeptide. These neurotransmitters are key players in your eating habits, mood and brain function. In addition, elevated cortisol not only is a major determinant in what you choose to eat, but also where it is stored. Yes, you guessed it, around your waist. Visceral fat (abdominal fat) is highly sensitive to cortisol levels. In fact, visceral fat can actually activate cortisol perpetuating a state of chronic stress. I call it your “circle of fat;” you have too many adrenal hormones because you are fat and you have excessive visceral body fat because of too many adrenal hormones.

How do you turn down the stress volume? Your path to wellness begins with your lifestyle. Exercise, good nutrition and hormonal balance all play an important role in stress reduction. And, the right approach makes all the difference. Opportunities offered through The Vitality Center are designed to provide you with an understanding of your own health and to teach more positive behaviors and habits to improve overall wellness – including stress reduction.

The Vitality Center is offering a three-day intensive workshop, Ageless Vitality, Jan. 29 – 31, where practitioners teach beneficial elements of health management. Ageless Vitality intensives offer a true learning retreat centered on self-discovery and healthy fulfillment; an opportunity to truly disconnect from the hectic pace of life today and learn to achieve the highest level of individual health and wellness. For information visit or call 970-476-7721.

Mary Horn is a nutritionist and exercise physiologist at the Vitality Center. E-mail comments about this column to

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