07/13/2011 11:48 am ET Updated Sep 03, 2011

How Stress Affects Your Body

What is stress? Are some of us inherently stress-robust whilst others unravel at the first hurdle? Is stress really making us fat? If stress is something that is triggered "out there," how can we best deal with it on the inside?

Stress is not simply the nervous tension of "feeling stressed" nor is it a simple hormonal change. The pattern of the stress reaction is highly targeted and will work its way through certain organs or parts of the body in a very selective manner. You'll feel it in the rush of adrenaline and in your gut. It's known as the General Adaption Syndrome (G.A.S), an interesting acronym since taking your foot off the gas is often the best course of recovery.

Chronic stress is often an obvious, jittery state, but with it comes a catalogue of potential symptoms. Most of us -- me included -- can find ourselves from time to time experiencing a few of these symptoms at once. The simple rule is the more persistent the symptoms, the more you need to take action. Finding out where you are on the stress scale is a good start.

Most of us jolt and then recover quickly (or perhaps hit the snooze button) when our morning alarm goes off. Thankfully, the body's stress "alarm stage" is similarly short, since to be continuously in a state of alarm would wear out the body very quickly.

Instead, your body quickly moves to the adaptive stage -- characterised by the diminishing of initial symptoms such as the rush of adrenaline and frenetic heart beat. It is not a reaction to a specific thing. One man's meat is another man's poison after all. Some of us get wired, while others get tired. Being both wired and tired can impact one's sleep patterns, food choices and hormones.

Stress is linked to an increase in a hormone called cortisol. This is where the weight gain link kicks in. Increased levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, particularly around the middle. Stress can even give you an appetite when you are not hungry. I often refer to stress eating as "Haagen Dazs Heartbreak" where no amount of nutrition advice helps until the underlying emotion is dealt with first.

How well you handle stress is determined largely by genetic your background, but factors such as age, hormones, drugs interactions and dietary factors (such as levels of vitamins and minerals) have a significant impact on whether or not that stress becomes a real problem. It is not to say that you can control the existence of outside stressors, rather that influencing how well your body handles stress on the inside is possible.

Simply put, a good diet, exercise and supplement regime can provide a buffer against stress. Eating 5-a-day won't make the traffic jam any better, but it could help you look less haggard by the time you get through it.

It is worth remembering that stress is not necessarily undesirable. The stress of failure or ill-health is detrimental; but that of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial. In the words of stress guru Hans Selye "it all depends on how you take it".