If you’re looking to improve mental and physical health, high stress levels could be getting in your way. From fatigue to increased cravings, here are some ways stress might be hindering your wellness journey.

Do you frequently feel stressed or anxious? You’re not alone, as more than 70% of Americans report feeling this way on a daily basis [6]. While occasional stress is normal, chronic stress can significantly affect your health, impact your weight, ruin sleep cycles, and cause headaches. But what can you do to reduce these symptoms, feel better, and improve your health? Before talking about how to reduce stress, let’s discuss what it is and how it affects your hormones.

What is stress?

By definition, stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with emotional or physical pressure [1]. Acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) are two different types of stress, but can affect your body in different ways. Acute stress is temporary and occurs after a stressful event, whereas chronic stress is prolonged (lasting weeks, months, even years), and can impact more long-term health issues, such as insomnia or sleep difficulties, lower sex drive, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, extreme fatigue, and weight gain [1].

Cortisol and weight gain

Cortisol is a metabolic hormone that is affected by stress, and is produced by the adrenal glands [2]. Cortisol performs several different functions within the body such as [2]:

  • Managing inflammation levels
  • Regulating blood pressure
  • Increasing blood glucose
  • Regulating sleep/wake cycle
  • Increasing your energy in the presence of stress
  • Regulating the body’s metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins

While cortisol plays a key role in your body, it kicks into high gear when you’re stressed, as it reduces insulin production and sensitivity to allow blood sugar to be used immediately by muscle tissue [3]. In an instance of acute stress, your cortisol levels will temporarily increase which may lead to increased blood pressure and heart rate, and alteration of your digestive, immune, and reproductive systems [2].

However, when cortisol levels are chronically elevated (as with chronic stress), the body remains in an insulin-resistant state and insulin production increases with rising blood sugars. These hormonal changes can increase cravings for sugary or highly-processed foods like cookies, soda, chips, or crackers, as they quickly offset the effects of raised insulin and cortisol levels [3,4]. In addition to increased cravings, elevated cortisol can also contribute to poor sleep and decreased motivation for physical activity, which are associated with weight gain [2].

Stress and its impact on digestive health

Have you ever noticed that symptoms of acid reflux (i.e. heartburn) flare up in stressful times? Research suggests that there may be a relationship between elevated cortisol and gastrointestinal disturbances, specifically acid reflux [5]. While acid reflux can certainly be triggered by dietary choices or eating habits, stress can also be a major trigger.

Emerging evidence shows that work-related stress increases your risk for developing gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD [5]. Studies have not been able to prove that high cortisol levels can increase the amount of acid within the stomach; however, scientists believe that stress and increased cortisol can make you more sensitive to the acid produced in the digestive tract, therefore making symptoms more painful [5]. Researchers believe that this can occur due to changes within the pain receptors in your brain caused by stress [5]. In addition, stress and high cortisol levels can also reduce the production of prostaglandins, which are substances that protect the stomach from its own acid [5].

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How you can manage stress  

Even though stress can negatively impact your health, there are some things you can do to combat elevated cortisol levels. Here are some strategies you can implement in your daily life to help manage stress:
  • Practice yoga. Don’t knock it ’til you try it! Yoga can come with a host of health benefits, from better posture to mental clarity, reduced inflammation, and improved heart health.
  • Meditate. Deep breathing does a wonder for your stress levels. In fact, studies have demonstrated the many benefits of meditating, including stress reduction, pain management, and enhanced focus, awareness, mental clarity, and memory.
  • Improve sleep habits. Sleep deprivation could leave you wide open for fatigue, stress, and emotional eating throughout the day. Improve your sleep hygiene with a few simple lifestyle changes to reduce stress and feel more refreshed in the morning.
  • Try BioMat therapy. This relaxing treatment helps to reduce inflammation, relieve acute and chronic pain, rejuvenate energy, improve overall mood, strengthen your immune system, and increase circulation. It also helps with managing stress levels! Book a BioMat appointment at our Wellness Center here.

Here at Pursue Wellness, we offer many services that can aid in your journey to managing the stressors of daily life, especially around the holidays. Contact us to see how we can help!


  1. Lee, D. Y., Kim, E., & Choi, M. H. (2015). Technical and clinical aspects of cortisol as a biochemical marker of chronic stress. BMB Reports, 48(4), 209–216. https://doi.org/10.5483/bmbrep.2015.48.4.275
  2. WebMD. (n.d.). Cortisol: What it does & how to regulate cortisol levels. WebMD. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol.
  3. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, July 8). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.
  4. Preiato, D. (2020, September 29). Cortisol and weight gain: Is there a connection? Healthline. Retrieved December 14, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/cortisol-and-weight-gain#tips.
  5. Story, C. M. (2017, July 24). Can stress cause acid reflux? Healthline. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/gerd/stress#The-connection
  6. Wiegner, L., Hange, D., Björkelund, C., & Ahlborg, G., Jr (2015). Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care–an observational study. BMC family practice, 16, 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12875-015-0252-7