Whether you’re sitting in your car stuck in traffic feeling anxious about getting to your appointment on time, or your stress levels are chronic in nature, the best way your body knows how to handle the situation is to release the stress hormone cortisol into your system.

No bigger than a walnut and weighing less than a grape, we have two adrenal glands that sit like a tiny pyramid on top of the kidney. These small endocrine glands manufacture and secrete steroid hormones such as cortisol. The main purpose of your adrenals is to enable your body to deal with stress from every possible source. Whether they signal attack, retreat or surrender, every cell responds accordingly, and you feel the results. It’s through the actions of the adrenal hormones that your body is able to mobilize its resources to escape or fight off danger (stress) and survive. In a more primitive society that would mean being able to run away quickly, fight or pursue an enemy or game, endure long periods of physical challenge and deprivation, and store up physical reserves when they are available. In modern society, these same responses are triggered by circumstances such as a difficult boss, family quarrels, financial problems, or even too little sleep. Often, our response to stress today is to sit and stew in our frustration and anger, without expending any of the calories or food stores that we would if we were physically fighting our way out of stress or danger.

More often than not, eating becomes the activity that relieves the stress. During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a clue to eat high-carbohydrate foods. Once you comply, you quickly learn a behavioral response that you can feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed. For some people, the effects of stress go beyond feelings of anxiety and discomfort. For these people, stress can mean facing each day ravenously hungry -- and adding weight gain to their list of worries. The reason you want a brownie instead of raw veggies when you're stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic is that cortisol demands the most readily available sources of energy: high-fat, simple-carb foods that your body can use quickly. That's why big bowls of pasta, chocolate bars, and potato chips have gained comfort-food status--they're exactly what your body craves in times of trouble. This is often referred to as emotional eating, best described as eating for reasons other than hunger.

Cortisol is also important for the maintenance of blood pressure as well as the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions is often an increase in appetite. High levels of sugar and insulin set the stage for the body to store fat. Its job is to help replenish your body after the stress has passed. It can remain elevated, increasing your appetite and ultimately driving you to eat more than usual. Following those stress signals not only lead to weight gain, but also the tendency to store what is called visceral fat around the midsection. The fuel our muscles need during "fight or flight" is sugar -- one reason we crave carbohydrates when we are stressed.

In a survey of more than 1,800 people last year, the American Psychological Association reports that 43 percent of respondents admitted to overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress during the previous month. Reasons for overeating relating to stress also include the fact that people feel too stressed and busy to make a healthy meal so they resort to fast food.

If you find yourself chronically stressed out, the best way to combat it is to decrease your stress levels, which can be helped by the following:

Eat a balanced diet -- Never skip a meal!
Don't lose sleep
Devote time to relaxation
Snack on whole grain, high fiber foods
Avoid caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol
Take your vitamins

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