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The Worst Way COVID Stress Affects Your Health

Stress levels are at an all-time high in 2020, which is putting the population at higher risk of multiple diseases—and one more than others.
stressed woman

There's no denying that 2020 has made us face some overwhelming challenges—and it's making us stressed out.

According to a September 2020 report, The State Of Mental Health In America, the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed. "From January to September 2020, 315,220 people took the anxiety screen, a 93 percent increase over the 2019 total number of anxiety screens," says the report. Out of those who took the anxiety screen, over 8 in 10 people scored with moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.

Although stress is a necessary evil in this world—without it, you wouldn't be able to focus your attention and respond to physical threats—it all depends on the doses. When stress is allowed to run rampant, the effect on your body is nothing short of disastrous. "Stress in and of itself can literally shut down your metabolism," says Jeffrey A. Morrison, MD, CNS, an expert in integrative medicine and metabolism issues. "It is tremendously metabolically draining." And chronic stress can have severe consequences on your health. (Related: 10 Everyday Habits With Major Health Benefits, Backed by Science.)

When you're feeling heightened levels of stress, your body responds by releasing the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine into your bloodstream. Your heart starts racing—pumping more blood—and your metabolism actually kicks into high gear. After all, the thinking goes, this is an evolutionary adaptation in place so our ancestors could run away from a prowling saber-toothed tiger. This is all very normal if it occurs in fairly sporadic intervals. In science terms, that's called "acute" stress. When you are, like a lot of Americans, suffering from chronic stress—or repeated exposure to such situations—things start going terribly wrong with your body. According to Canada's Centre for Studies on Human Stress, chronic stress is a big factor in heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

A wide body of evidence supports the connection between chronic stress and weight gain.

A 2015 study of fifty-eight women (many of whom suffered from depression in the past) published in the journal Biological Psychiatry explored "how stress and depression alter metabolic responses to high-fat meals in ways that promote obesity." Measuring everything from insulin to glucose to cortisol levels—as well as your resting metabolism and "fat and carbohydrate oxidation"—the researchers found that respondents who had experienced "prior day stressors" were at a serious metabolic disadvantage than the respondents who had zero stressors. In fact, they calculated that being more stressed out over the span of six hours adds up to a difference in 104 calories. Allow me to translate that for you: Getting really stressed out can potentially amount to nearly eleven pounds of extra weight added over the course of a year. According to the study: "Higher cortisol fosters increased intake of calorie-dense 'comfort foods,' and insulin secretion rises as cortisol increases."

In a four-year British study whose findings were published in the journal Obesity in 2017, researchers measured the cortisol levels contained in locks of hair they'd plucked from 2,527 men and women over the age of fifty-four. They also tracked the subjects' "weight, body mass index, and waist circumference." Ultimately, they discovered a direct correlation between chronic stress and all three of those obesity-related factors. "People tend to report overeating and 'comfort eating' foods high in fat, sugar, and calories in times of stress," the report stated. "And the stress hormone cortisol plays an important role in metabolism and determining where fat is stored."

Meanwhile, another study, published in 2016 in the journal Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, made an equally stunning case for a straight-line connection between your metabolism and your body's stress response. "Chronic stress can lead to dietary over-consumption, increased visceral adiposity, and weight gain," the researchers, from the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, write in the report.

With the right tools—like the 21 Best Foods to Eat When You're Stressed, According to Dietitians and 22 Proven Tricks That Melt Stress—you'll find yourself walking through the world happier and healthier. At the end of the day, managing your stress levels is one of the surest keys for supporting a healthy body and keeping your metabolism operating at its prime.

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