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Stress and Metabolic Health

Key takeaways:

  • there are different types of stress – some good for the metabolism, some bad
  • chronic stress elevates cortisol, which reduces insulin sensitivity
  • sleep, exercise, and deep breathing all reduce cortisol and improve metabolic health

Metabolic health is the balance of energy going into and out of your body.

We used to think metabolic health was a product of simply not eating more energy than you spent – calories in, calories out. But half a century of this outdated philosophy only led to the obesity epidemic.

Now we know that the hormone insulin is the main driver of metabolic health. Insulin dictates how energy is stored and used within the body. And there are many factors that influence how much insulin is produced, and even more important, how responsive our cells are to it.

Today, we’re going to explore how stress affects insulin and metabolic health.

What is stress?

Stress is any sort of mental tension related to work, relationships, and life. We may associate stress with neck pain and insomnia, but not all stress is bad.

  • Eustress is any form of stress that you respond positively to – a tight deadline that makes you focus, the pressure to provide for your family.
  • Distress is any form of stress that seems overwhelming – a job you hate, financial issues.

But the ultimate decider of what makes something eustress or distress is, well, you. You can even turn bad stress into good stress just by acting on that stressor in a positive way. The key is to limit the stresses in your life that you can’t control. (More on that in our action steps!)

In a way, our mental reaction to stress determines our metabolic reaction to stress. If we move ourselves to act on a stressor, there’s a balance. If we keep the stressor inside of us and don’t act, there’s an imbalance. And that’s exactly what metabolic disease is – an imbalance where energy is stored rather than used.

The problem with stress today is that we can’t immediately act on many of the stressors we face

Back in the day, you ran into a hungry bear in the woods, then you ran away. Stress → movement → balance. If you stopped to think about how you would act on that stressful situation, you’d experience the imbalance of being eaten.

(Insert bear burp.)

But today, our stressors are invisible, nuanced, and sometimes so negatively entrenched in our psyches that any movement toward handling them seems impossible. And we can’t always act even if we wanted to.

Thing is, our bodies respond to stressors of the mind in exactly the same biochemical way as if they were physical threats.

So, while you’re driving through stop-and-go traffic and ruminating on five tasks you may never get to, your body is reacting as if there were five literal bears in the car with you.

Not the cute, cuddly kind.

How stress affects the metabolism

Now what exactly is going on in the body when you’re stressed?

To put it briefly, your nervous system shifts over to sympathetic activity – commonly known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. This electrical shift triggers a cascade of hormones that increase the availability of sugar in the blood for an instant athletic boost.

(Bye bye, bear!)

The hormone cortisol, in particular, is to blame for insulin resistance and energy imbalance.

Now before we start hating on cortisol, none of us would be alive without it. We need cortisol for waking up refreshed, lifting heavy things, and outrunning threats. But when cortisol levels remain high due to chronic stress, it interferes with insulin.

This is because cortisol and insulin are antagonistic.

Where cortisol breaks down tissue into sugar for fighting fuel, insulin shuttles glucose into cells to build up tissue.And the way cortisol works to keep high-octane fuel in the bloodstream is by reducing insulin sensitivity so that sugar doesn’t get sucked up by other cells when you need it for bear evasion. [1] The two hormones simply can’t work at the same time.

Temporary insulin resistance via cortisol was brilliant for our ancestors who literally had to run for their lives on a regular basis. But in today’s tame environment with mostly psychic threats and less physical movement, high cortisol leads to excess insulin, high blood sugar, and metabolic imbalance.

Metabolic health effects of stress and cortisol:

  • chronically elevated cortisol leads to lower muscle mass – muscle being a powerful metabolic organ [1]
  • elevated cortisol can lead to increased fat mass [1]
  • chronic stress is associated with high cortisol [2]
  • insulin resistance is linked to hypertension, a diagnostic of metabolic syndrome [3]
  • stress both causes and is caused by diabetes [4]
  • cortisol reduces sleep time and quality. [5] (sleep is essential for metabolic wellbeing)

How to reduce stress for better metabolic health

Stress causes big problems in our metabolism, for sure. But there are so many things we can do to manage our stress and reduce cortisol! We’ve got some action steps that’ll help you relax into better metabolic health.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is the first step for stress reduction because you can do it anywhere for an immediate calming effect.Technically, deep diaphragmatic breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, which is the seat of the parasympathetic – rest and digest – nervous system. [6]

You can’t be in fight or flight mode when you’re focusing on deep breathing! So try five minutes of belly breathing aspart of a bedtime routine or while commuting. It’s pretty easy:

  • put your hands across your stomach near your navel
  • breathe in through your nose, expanding your hands like a balloon
  • and breathe out gently through your mouth

Decreasing your breaths per minute to around four is a proven way to increase parasympathetic activity and reduce cortisol. [7] Once you’re at the top of your inspiration, hold your breath for a second or two. Then do the same at the bottom of your exhale.

Tackling scary items on your to-do list

Okay, now that you’re calmed and centered from deep breathing, you can create some eustress in your life by finally acting on the stresses that have been piling up.

Are your Christmas lights still up from two years ago? Do you need to get your car fixed? Is there a project that you’ve been pushing back for weeks and months that’s always in the back of your mind?

These avoided tasks can create so much background stress in your life that you feel overwhelmed by almost anything new that finds its way on your plate. So give yourself permission to take a weekend away from your usual activities, even the fun stuff, so that you can tackle your old to-dos and create some more good stress. :-)

Turn off the news

 You can automatically improve your stress levels by turning off the news.

News coverage is mostly negative, focused on things you can’t control. [8] And each of those things you can’t control is like a little alarm bell constantly going off in your subconscious and contributing to your overall stress load.

The only way you can control the news is to strictly limit it (we’re talking one or two days a week) or to turn it off entirely.

Instead of news, opt for comedy. Laughter is a parasympathetic activity that reduces stress hormones. [9]


Exercise is itself a stress to the body.Cortisol and adrenaline rise as the intensity and duration increase and too much exercise leads to more stress than your body can handle. But getting the right amount of exercise on a regular basis can actually lower your baseline levels of stress hormones.[10]

Exercise is classified as a hormetic stressor – a mild stress that helps your cells better adapt to stress. If you can’t exercise, other examples of hormetic stressors include sauna bathing, cold exposure, and fasting.)

When exercising to reduce stress, it’s important to choose milder aerobic (fat burning) movement, like walking, jogging, and swimming laps. High-intensity anaerobic exercise spikes cortisol, especially in the untrained. [11]


Just like we talked about sleep being the ultimate metabolic hack in a recent article, sleep is the ultimate stress hack, too. (Could the two be related?!)

During REM sleep, your brain processes emotionally charged events and reset your stress responses from the previous day. [12] Studies show that not getting enough sleep leads to a negative emotional bias – which means you’ll focus more on stressful things. [13] Also, missing out on sleep increases cortisol. [14]

The best thing you can do to beat stress is to get a full night of quality sleep each night. Here are some ways to sleep deeper and longer:

  • go to bed at the same time each night
  • turn off blue light sources two hours before bed and eliminate light in your room
  • eat your last bite of food four hours before you go to sleep

Stuff we say at the end 

Stress could be one of the biggest metabolic health challenges of our time. Chronic stress diminishes insulin sensitivity, it impairs our sleep, and it’s linked to diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

But you’re not a slave to stress.

And if you make stress reduction a priority through the tips we’ve shared, you can improve your insulin sensitivity and blood sugar. The main thing to take away is that you can transform your distress into eustress (or good stress) just by acting on that stress in a positive way.

Is your metabolic health one of those big stressors?

Act on your metabolic health with Veri.

Cheers to your health!

Team Veri



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Further reading