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    Bottom of the To-Do List: What Your Body Deprioritizes When You're Stressed

      |  Dec 18, 2023

    The dreaded to-do list — part organizational tool, part daunting document, and if you’re anything like us, a never ending set of reminders and tasks. Whether you use a pen and paper, a dedicated program, or just the Notes app on your phone, you probably rely on your to-do list to get you through the day. But did you know that your body has a to-do list of its own? 

    Behind the scenes, your body is going through thousands of processes on a daily basis to keep you healthy and functioning. And just like you, the body reprioritizes certain tasks during moments of stress or upheaval. That’s because cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s stress response, sends signals to the brain’s hypothalamus that you’re in danger, and don’t have time to focus on “unnecessary” tasks, like the proper functioning of your immune system. 

    This response makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, but can be damaging if experienced over long periods of time. If you’re undergoing chronic stress, your body’s tendency to kick key functions to the bottom of its to-do list can lead to life disrupting symptoms and long term diseases.

    Deprioritized: Glucose Metabolism → Weight Gain

    Your body’s short term stress response actually decreases your appetite by releasing adrenaline — that’s why you might be able to skip lunch when working on a tight deadline. But chronic stress releases cortisol, which increases your appetite and your motivation to eat. It also makes you crave sugar and fat. Alongside cortisol increases, stress also affects your glucose metabolism. A recent study showed that acute stress creates blood sugar peaks and elevated insulin levels after meals, which increases your risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

    Deprioritized: Circadian Rhythm → Insomnia, Fatigue

    Outside of the stress response, our bodies produce cortisol in accordance with our circadian rhythm. In a healthy body, cortisol production peaks in the morning, around 9 am, and declines throughout the day, reaching its lowest point around midnight. When cortisol levels are increased due to the body’s stress response, you might find it harder to follow your natural circadian rhythms as it relates to falling and staying asleep. High levels of cortisol due to stress can lead to lighter sleeping and waking up more frequently in the night, disrupting your sleep cycle.

    Deprioritized: Immune System → Frequently Sick

    In the short term, stress is actually good for your immune system: cortisol boosts immunity by limiting inflammation in your body. However, if you’re experiencing chronic stress, your body can become used to high levels of cortisol, creating opportunities for more inflammation and a suppressed immune system. If your immune system is weakened due to stress, you might catch colds more easily, get frequent cold sores, or have swollen lymph nodes.

    Deprioritized: Memory Formulation → Memory loss, Brain Fog

    Stress can impact your cognitive abilities now and in the future. When under stress, whether short term or long term, your body will deprioritize creating short term memories as it focuses on the challenges in front of you. Short term memory loss can lead to long term memory loss, which makes it harder to retain necessary information. Exhaustion caused by stress can also impair your cognitive abilities. In studies of people suffering from exhaustion, researchers detected memory impairment up to three years after the stressful period had been addressed. 

    Deprioritized: Digestion → Inflammation, Indigestion

    While increased cortisol might increase your appetite, it deprioritizes your body’s digestive functions. The flight-or-flight response can cause a variety of digestive issues, including spasms in your esophagus, nausea, increased stomach acid, diarrhea, or constipation. As stress continues and the body decreases the flood of blood and oxygen to the stomach, you might experience chronic diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

    Get your body’s to-do list in check

    As bad it sometimes feels, short term stress is your body doing its best to protect you from perceived danger and conquer challenges. But when stress becomes chronic, your body’s attempts to protect you can actually harm your health in the long term. Alongside recommended stress reduction techniques—including a balanced diet, regular exercise, and meditation—there are a variety of treatments and supplements that can assist in rebalancing your body and alleviating symptoms of chronic stress. 

    Don’t know where to start? Our Aging Wellness Assessment can help you get the full picture of your health, including the root causes of symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, and a poor immune system. You’ll work 1:1 with a licensed clinician to assess key biomarkers, cognitive function, and metabolic health, with a focus on creating a custom plan to help you feel better and age into your best self.

    This post was reviewed for clinical accuracy by Dr. Anant Vinjamoori, MD.