How Does Stress Affect Metabolic Health?

How Does Stress Affect Metabolic Health?

What Is Stress?

Stress is a broad term that refers to various “stressors” or factors that place a significant psychological strain and often disturb normal physiological state.1 Stressors can include low socioeconomic status, major life events such as job loss or divorce, catastrophic events such as war, chronic adversities such as daily work stress, hassles, caregiver distress, social stress, as well as adverse childhood experience such as family problems, abuse, or death of a family.


How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Stress is known to affect two major systems in the human body: the sympathoadrenal system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.1–3 The sympathoadrenal system rapidly responds to stressors by releasing hormones called norepinephrine and epinephrine that affect the body by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, cardiac output, glucose levels, and oxygen consumption, among other changes. The HPA axis more gradually responds to stressors and releases various hormones that ultimately increases levels of cortisol, a key stress hormone. Cortisol has various effects on the body, including increased use of energy, decreased insulin secretion, suppression of immune response, and delayed wound healing. Although these systems play an important role in preparing the body to adapt to and handle stressors, repeated and prolonged stress can have detrimental effects on the body, including unfavorable changes in metabolism, immune function, and biological aging.1


How Does Stress Affect Metabolic Health?

Review of latest evidence suggests that stress is associated with numerous metabolic disorders, such as diabetes.1 For instance, stress in adults is found to be associated with a 1.1-1.4-fold increase in risk of obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. Additionally, studies show that greater exposure of stressors during childhood more greatly increases the risk of metabolic disorders in adulthood. A population-based study in the past has also found that individuals who experienced work-, finance-, and health-related stressors had higher body mass index, waist circumference, triglycerides, indicators of insulin resistance, and increased risk of developing impaired glucose tolerance.4 Although the mechanisms behind stress and metabolic health are complex and are still being studied, research is showing that cortisol plays a key role in understanding how stress negatively affects metabolic health, especially in glucose metabolism.1 Cortisol normally increases glucose levels and induces insulin resistance in response to stress. Although this process is useful during acutely stressful events, persistently elevated levels of cortisol can exacerbate insulin resistance, which can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus in the long run.


What Are Ways to Alleviate Stress?

1) Take Care of Your Physical Body – Taking care of the physical body is an important component in alleviating and managing stress.5 Consuming a healthy diet, engaging in regular exercises, and getting adequate sleep are critical especially when stressors may be high.


2) Take Care of Emotions and Thoughts – Incorporating strategies to care for rising emotions and thoughts are helpful in managing stress.5 Laughing, relaxing through music, and practicing deep breathing are great ways to reduce stress.6 Studies also show that mindfulness practices that focus the mind on the present moment instead of engaging in future worries can help alleviate stress.5 Receiving professional therapy and help can also be valuable.


1. Kivimäki M, Bartolomucci A, Kawachi I. The Multiple Roles of Life Stress in Metabolic Disorders. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2023;19(1):10-27. doi:10.1038/s41574-022-00746-8
2. Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, Ayers D. Physiology, Stress Reaction. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Accessed October 26, 2023.
3. Hjemdahl P. Stress and the Metabolic Syndrome. Circulation. 2002;106(21):2634-2636. doi:10.1161/01.CIR.0000041502.43564.79
4. Pyykkönen AJ, Räikkönen K, Tuomi T, Eriksson JG, Groop L, Isomaa B. Stressful Life Events and the Metabolic Syndrome: The Prevalence, Prediction and Prevention of Diabetes (PPP)-Botnia Study. Diabetes Care. 2009;33(2):378-384. doi:10.2337/dc09-1027
5. Worthen M, Cash E. Stress Management. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Accessed October 26, 2023.
6. Kumar A, Rinwa P, Kaur G, Machawal L. Stress: Neurobiology, Consequences and Management. J Pharm Bioallied Sci. 2013;5(2):91-97. doi:10.4103/0975-7406.111818



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