Stress and Disease

Scientific research and medical evidence clearly show that a sustained high level of cortisol, triggered by chronic unrelenting stress, has debilitating effects on long-term health. Among these many effects is an increase in appetite and cravings for certain foods. Because one of the primary roles of cortisol is to encourage the body to refuel itself after responding to a stressor, an elevated cortisol level keeps your appetite ramped up—so you feel hungry almost all the time. In addition, the type of fat that accumulates as a result of this stress-induced appetite will typically locate itself in the abdominal region of the body (probably so it is readily available for the next stress response). The major problem with abdominal fat, aside from the fact that nobody wants a potbelly, is that this type of fat is also highly associated with the development of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Elevated cortisol levels resulting from chronic stress have been associated with the following conditions:

  • Increased appetite and food cravings
  • Increased body fat
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Decreased bone density
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased depression
  • Mood swings (anger and irritability)
  • Reduced libido (sex drive)
  • An impaired immune response
  • Memory and learning impairment
  • Increased symptoms of PMS—premenstrual syndrome (cramps, increased appetite)
  • Increased menopausal side effects (hot flashes, night sweats)

Researchers from around the world have slowly been uncovering the relationship between elevated cortisol levels and numerous chronic diseases (listed in the sidebar, above). Because of the complex relationships between lifestyle, physiology, and psychology, it is not always possible to determine whether elevated cortisol levels are the primary cause of the disease or a mediating factor in the body's response to the disease. For example, a powerful synthetic form of cortisol, called cortisone, is used as a drug to reduce swelling, inflammation, and joint pain in cases of rheumatoid arthritis (and it performs these actions quite effectively). The catch here is that cortisone use is typically limited to a short period of time, because long-term exposure leads to memory problems, weight gain, depression, and increased infections, making some people feel that they'd be better off with the painful, swollen joints instead of the long-term side effects of the drug.


Shawn Talbott

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