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5 Signs You're More Stressed Than You Think You Are

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, plus many are doubling as homework helpers and kid chauffeurs on nights and weekends. It’s a constant, organized chaos. But that’s life, right? And it should be dealt with by transforming into a sleep-deprived, caffeine-driven superhuman on overdrive. What could go wrong?

When we’re in 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.

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

The snooze button is an expected player in the 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 7-8 hours uninterrupted, if you’re 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 sleep suffers. Conversely, when our stress hormones are imbalanced for too long and swing low, we’re prone to low blood sugars at night that also can wake us up. Either way, lack of restful sleep is cause for concern.

Chips always sound good

This might sound familiar. Maybe you just had dinner, but when you finally sit down in front of the TV, you wonder if there are any chips around. Or maybe crackers and cheese. Actually, popcorn sounds amazing. 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. So what’s actually happening under the surface here? To start, the adrenal glands that make the stress hormone cortisol also make a hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone helps retain sodium and water in the body. Under ongoing, unmanaged stress, our cortisol levels actually can dip below where they should 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.

You’re always hungry

When stress is ignored and silently running the show, eating behavior can change and you might find yourself eating more than ever. On the extreme end, stress can even play a role in binge eating disorders and belly fat1 (see next sign below). Even in the absence of binge eating, maintaining awareness of stress hormones and impact on appetite is important. For example, cortisol can lower the activity of uncoupling protein 1, or UCP1, in our brown fat (which is often referred to as the good kind of fat), and this can increase appetite, even when there are adequate levels of appetite suppressing hormone (leptin).2 Yikes!

Constant stress might also be making you want hyperpalatable foods.3 These are foods that typically are processed and high in both fat and sugar or refined carbohydrate (think ice cream, donuts, 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 through or ice cream in the freezer is calling your name, beware! (especially if strong self-guilt and agitation set in afterward you eat them). Your stress might be creating a triple threat of excessive food intake, increased sugar and processed fat intake, and poor mood.

Your jeans shrunk

…Or perhaps more accurately, your belly fat increased. If you find your midsection is holding on to some extra cushion lately, your stress hormones could be to blame.5 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 of body fat in specific areas are a concern that should be addressed. While the vanity of changing body shape is one concern, the health impact of why these fat storage patterns are changing also 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 lean middle and washboard abs.

No one is cooperating  

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 should 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 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 at bay. 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 on to 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 — 5 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: a few extra pounds, a new hankering for processed snacks, a shorter temper, or tossing and turning at night. 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 cortisol levels, come up with a doable action plan, and move stress management to the top of your priority list. Your waistline, energy, mood, friends and family will all thank you.

How about you? Is your body giving you warnings that stress is out of control? If you have questions about which lab assessments are right for you and how to get connected with a coach, email We’re always happy to help!

In health, Samantha McKinney, Registered Dietitian, Program Manager - Life Time Lab Testing

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 



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