We all have stress in our lives – it really is unavoidable. Some stress is healthy for us but excessive amounts can cause all sorts of health issues.
So what effect does a high level of stress have on our weight? It seems that as the general stress level in our society increases, so does the overweight and obesity issue. What is the connection?
Stress and hormone levels
Stress plays a big part in the body’s hormone levels, which in turn, have an effect on weight gain. How? It has to do with our body’s stress response system. Let’s start by looking at how certain hormones are released when we are experiencing stress. Here is how the sequence goes:
- When we experience a stressor the body reacts as if there is a physical threat, such as being under attack.
- A small gland in the base of the brain, the hypothalamus gland is stimulated and does two things:
- It sets off a chain reaction of nerve impulses or signals, like an alarm system, in response to the stress.
- It transmits messages to the part of the brain that govern mood, fear and motivation.
- Nerve impulses and hormone signals tell the adrenal glands to start producing two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
- Adrenaline (also call epinephrine):
- Draws on the body’s stored energy resources and prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’.
- Increases blood flow, metabolism and breathing rate.
- Prepares the muscles for exertion.
- Cortisol, the principal stress hormone:
- Increases glucose or sugar in the bloodstream.
- Boosts the brain’s use of glucose.
- Causes a surge of substances that repair the body’s tissues.
- Restricts the body’s nonessential functions that could get in the way during ‘fight or flight’, including immune system response, digestion, reproduction and normal growth.
- Tells your body to replenish the energy used during the perceived attack or stressful event.
- Once the perceived danger or stress is gone, everything calms down. Hormone levels are gradually reduced and the body’s systems return to normal functioning.
How is the stress response sequence linked to weight gain?
When a person is under continuous stress, the body remains on high alert (in the fight or flight mode) and stress hormones are continuously being produced. Excess cortisol seems to be the culprit when it comes to weight gain. Here are six ways that cortisol affects our weight:
- Cortisol and stress eating: High cortisol levels can cause hunger because cortisol signals the body to replace the energy used while in fight or flight mode. When we are hungry during stressful times, we automatically reach for comfort food which is often high in unhealthy fat, salt or sugar. These foods stimulate the release of chemicals in the brain, which reduce the stress. It is very easy for us to become addicted to the foods that release these soothing chemicals.
- Cortisol and muscle mass: According to Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of The Cortisol Connection, as we age our bodies produce less testosterone, a muscle-building hormone. Excess cortisol causes the testosterone level to decrease faster than normal. The net effect on our body is that we lose muscle mass and burn fewer calories.
- Cortisol and visceral fat: Cortisol promotes fat storage, particularly visceral fat, a type of fat that surrounds the vital organs. This is a very unhealthy situation because it can impair liver function, and raise cholesterol and insulin levels by releasing fatty acids into the bloodstream. Visceral fat increases the risk for insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
- Cortisol and insulin, the fat storing hormone: Research has shown that high levels of cortisol cause blood sugar levels to spike, resulting in a rollercoaster effect and excess production of insulin. The body is forced to produce excess insulin to deal with the high blood sugar; the sugar is successfully moved out of the blood; then the blood sugar level goes too low causing a crash or low blood sugar; negative effects start to happen: hunger, jitters, brain fog, lack of concentration, headaches, irritability, and sugar or carb cravings. To feel better, we reach for food – usually sugary food, junk foods or refined carbs. When unhealthy food is eaten or more stress happens, producing more cortisol – the rollercoaster effect starts all over again.
- Cortisol and weight loss diets: Constantly being on weight loss diets can increase cortisol levels by as much as 18%. A healthy, whole foods lifestyle is a much better alternative.
- Cortisol and caffeine: It seems as though stress and caffeine are a not a good combination. Consuming caffeine can add more cortisol to your system, over and above the cortisol from stress alone.
Weight gain is not the only problem caused by stress and the overproduction of stress hormones. It can wreak havoc in many of the body’s systems and cause numerous health issues, including difficulty with memory and concentration, anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive problems, and sleep issues.
Are you currently dealing with stress related weight gain? Have you been on numerous weight-loss diets, but always end up feeling more stressed and heavier than ever? You are not alone! I’ve been there too! Contact me, and let’s talk about how you can turn things around.
Copyright © 2015 Cathy Ormon – All Rights Reserved