THE BLOG
12/05/2014 11:35 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

How Chronic Stress Can Create Hormonal Havoc, Part One

"If you really knew what was happening to you when you are stressed, you would freak out. It's not pretty," I said during the 2013 Third Metric women's conference. I wasn't kidding. I could write several books about stress's massive, chronic havoc on your body.

If you want to avoid stress, you've been born in the wrong era. Chronic stress has become epidemic in our society where faster is better and we attempt to pack more obligations into our ever-expanding schedules.

Among its havoc, one meta-analysis involving 300 studies found chronic stress could damage your immunity. If that wasn't enough, stress also can make you fat and contribute to diabesity. A study in the journal Appetite found stressed-out women had significantly higher waist circumference compared to non-stressed women.

Experts have long known a relationship exists between stress, blood sugar and belly fat. In the face of chronic stress, insulin increases. This drives the relentless metabolic dysfunction that can lead to weight gain, insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes.

When you're stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that flood your system, raising your heart rate, increasing your blood pressure, making your blood more likely to clot, damaging your brain's memory center, increasing belly fat storage and generally wreaking havoc on your body.

That hormonal havoc can create very practical adverse consequences. For example, you stop by your favorite coffee shop on your way to work. Frazzled by a million demands and work-hour traffic, you realize you haven't had breakfast and order a muffin along with your gigantic coffee.

Looking at that seemingly-innocuous breakfast scenario, the caffeine in coffee increases catecholamines, your stress hormones. The stress response elicits cortisol that, coupled with the sugar in that muffin, increases insulin. Insulin increases inflammation and this makes you feel lousy. And the sugar in the muffin increases cortisol and adrenalin, the stress hormones. Yes, sugar can literally jack up your stress hormones, even if you are not stressed!

Chances are, you'll continue that pattern throughout the day. Regardless, and you've created the perfect storm for hormonal hell that leaves you tired, miserable and storing fat.

Managing Stress Starts With Your Diet:

The right diet can do wonders to reduce stress's impact on your life. When you eat whole, real foods, you can restore balance to insulin, cortisol, and other hormones.

When you clean up your diet from mind-robbing molecules like caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugars and eat regularly to avoid the short-term stress of starvation on your body, you can maintain an even-keeled mindset throughout the day even when things get hectic.

You'll replace those foods with clean protein, healthy fats, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, berries, and non-gluten grains. Food is information that controls your gene expression, hormones, and metabolism. When you eat the right foods, you balance blood sugar, restore hormonal balance, and reduce stress's damaging impact.

Reduce Stress With These Simple, Powerful Techniques

Stress is a thought, a perception of a threat, even if it is not real. That's it. No more, no less. If that's true, then we have complete control over stress, because it's not something that happens to us but something that happens in us.

The dictionary defines stress as the "bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium." Your thoughts become unbalanced.

Here's where it become interesting. Stressors can be real or perceived. You might imagine your spouse is angry at you. Whether or not they are, you raise stress levels. Real or imagined, when you perceive something as stressful, it creates the same response in the body.

Most people, when they look at my life, think I'm crazy and wonder why I'm not more stressed -- running a medical practice; opening a new Center for Functional Medicine at Cleveland Clinic; doing research; writing books and blogs; teaching all over the world; working on health policy; volunteering in Haiti, churches and orphanages; being a father, son, brother, partner, friend, boss, and more. But it's actually quite simple. I don't worry about things much. I simply wake up and do the next thing as best I can.

I manage these duties with a wide variety of techniques and tools that help effectively manage stress. In part two of this blog, I'll share 13 simple, effective strategies to manage stress. In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you. What one strategy helps you "roll with the punches" when life throws you a curveball? Share yours below or on my Facebook fan page.

Mark Hyman, MD, believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform health care. Dr. Hyman and his team work every day to empower people, organizations, and communities to heal their bodies and minds, and improve our social and economic resilience.

Please join him in helping us all take back our health at www.drhyman.com, follow him on Twitter and on Facebook and Instagram.