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A woman rubbing her eyes, stressed while at work.

While it’s no secret that stress is a potent contributor to weight gain and chronic disease, many of us are quick to assume a “mind-over-matter” mentality to manage our overbooked calendars and never-ending to-do lists.

Sure, there’s stress, we say. We manage work deadlines, financial issues, relationship challenges, and care for aging parents, with many also doubling as homework helpers and kid chauffeurs on nights and weekends. It’s a constant, (sometimes) organized chaos. But that’s life, right? And we can just deal with it by transforming into sleep-deprived, caffeine-driven superhumans on overdrive. What could go wrong?

When we’re in the midst of the hustle and grind, it’s easy to believe that time spent on purposeful stress management is a waste, and the thought of squeezing in time to decompress becomes almost laughable. However, health truly is wealth, and the unrelenting stress could very much be tearing yours apart — without you even noticing.

Fortunately, our physiology can’t lie to us as easily as feeble willpower can. We have built-in barometers to let us know when “mind-over-matter” is not working for us anymore, and our health is waving the white flag of surrender to stress.

Here are five common signs stress is getting the best of you. These signals may help you determine if it might be time to pause, assess, and revaluate how to best take care of you.

1. The snooze button is an expected player in your morning routine.

Difficulty staying asleep is perhaps one of the most common signs that your stress is out of control. If you’re not sleeping seven to eight hours uninterrupted, if you find yourself tossing and turning, or if you’re waking up to go to the bathroom, take note.

Our main stress hormone, cortisol, has a tight-knit relationship with blood sugar. And when the two are snowballing out of control, sleep quality is one of the first things to go. Without restful, deep, restorative sleep, even adequate time in bed can lead you to play the daily “five more minutes” game each morning.

When our stress hormones are high, melatonin levels go down and our sleep suffers. Conversely, when our stress hormones are imbalanced for too long and swing too low, we’re then prone to low blood sugar levels at night which can also wake us up.

Either way, a lack of restful sleep is a signal for concern.

2. Chips always sound good.

This scenario might sound familiar: You just had dinner and sit down in front of the TV in hopes of relaxing a bit. It’s not long before you wonder if there are any chips in the kitchen. Or maybe crackers and cheese. Or, perhaps you’ve now got a hankering for some popcorn.

You have a short-lived internal debate before deciding that you deserve them and dig in. Soon, you realize this is an almost nightly repeat.

Here’s the good news: this is not just about willpower. There really is physiology that you can blame these tendencies on — to a point. What you do about this pattern is up to you.

This is what’s happening under the surface: The adrenal glands that make cortisol also make a hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone helps retain sodium and water in the body. Under ongoing, unmanaged stress, our cortisol levels can actually dip below where we want them to be, and aldosterone can follow suit.

When you lose sodium and water, it’s possible that salt cravings will spike. It’s also possible to have lower blood volume (you’re losing water and you might be urinating a lot) and blood pressure, so going from sitting to standing might trigger dizziness or lightheadedness. All in all, the salt cravings and challenged adrenal glands are talking to you.

3. You’re hungry all the time.

When stress is ignored and silently running the show, eating behavior can change and you might find yourself consuming more than ever. On the extreme end, stress can even play a role in binge eating disorders and belly fat (see next sign below). However, even in the absence of those, maintaining awareness of stress hormones and their impact on appetite is important.

Constant stress might also be making you crave hyperpalatable foods. These are foods that typically are processed and high in both fat and sugar or refined carbohydrate (think ice cream, donuts, and French fries), triggering a psychological pleasure reaction that would be hard-pressed or impossible to achieve with whole, unprocessed foods in the right balance.

One study found that women under stress ended up eating more sweets and calories and reported a worse mood after doing so. If your favorite protein, healthy fat, and veggie meal doesn’t sound good to you, but the drive-thru or ice cream in the freezer is calling your name, beware! (And be especially cautious if strong self-guilt and agitation set in after you eat them.) Your stress might be creating a triple threat of excessive food consumption, increased sugar and processed fat intake, and poor mood.

4. Your jeans have shrunk.

Or, perhaps more accurately, your belly fat has increased. If you find your midsection is holding on to some extra body fat lately, your stress hormones could be to blame.

Fat deposition patterns on the body can tell a story about what is going on under the surface, so storing fat in new places or having increased levels in specific areas are a concern that ought to be addressed. While the vanity of changing body shape is what might grab your attention, the health impact of why these fat storage patterns are changing warrants some attention.

Cortisol and central adiposity (or fat storage in the middle) have a strong connection, making ongoing stress a top enemy to a healthy belly.

5. No one is cooperating with you.

If your friends, family, coworkers, and perfect strangers are all simultaneously getting on your nerves, it can be sobering news to realize that you’re the common denominator. And honestly, who hasn’t been there at some point?

No doubt, stress impacts mood. That likely does not come as a surprise. But when you’re noticing worsening mood, more irritability, or even an unusual level of apathy, your stress response may be better managing your emotions and outlook for you. A mindset run by the stress response can easily lead to poor decision making and the tendency to react versus respond to situations.

If you’re irritated — and getting irritated that your loved ones are telling you you’re irritated — take a pause to reflect on whether or not they’re really onto something. It might be high time to assess your stress, address it, and kick stress-induced negativity out the door.

So there you have it: five telltale signs that the “mind-over-matter” approach may not actually be working well for you. Often, adrenal imbalances and out-of-whack stress hormones show up first in the subtleties and signs that are easy to initially ignore: tossing and turning at night, a new hankering for processed snacks, a few extra pounds, or a shorter temper.

Over time, however, risk of more complex and serious health complications creeps up. If you’re experiencing any of the above, it’s time to take an objective look at your cortisol levels, come up with a doable action plan, and move stress management to the top of your priority list. Your energy, waistline, mood, and friends and family will all thank you.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Training Facebook group.

samantha-mckinney-life-time-training-registered-dietician
Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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