Researchers have long known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain. Stress contains neither calories nor carbohydrates but can still lead to obesity. Every time you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream to provide energy for your muscles. In Paleolithic times, the stress that led to a release of cortisol was often physical: for instance, being chased by a predator. Cortisol is essential in preparing our bodies for action – to run as fast as we can or to stay and fight.
Vigorous physical exertion soon often followed the stressor, (we fought or we ran), hence burning up these newly available stores of glucose. Shortly thereafter, the danger passed, and our cortisol returned to its normal low levels. And that’s the point: the body is well adapted to a short-term increase in cortisol and glucose levels. All organisms can tolerate short term stress. If a zebra is being chased by a lion, and she out runs the lion, the event is over. The zebra will return to homeostasis and balance within a short period of time and go back to grazing. Stress experienced over the long term (called chronic stress) however is a problem arises.
In our modern day lives we have many chronic non-physical stressors that increase our cortisol levels. For example, second mortgages, single parenting, financial crisis, arguments with the kids, family tragedies, sleep deprivation, these are all serious stressors, but they do not result in the vigorous physical exertion needed to burn off the blood glucose. In fact, human beings can turn on the stress response just by thought alone! Just by thinking about our problems we produce the same chemistry as if the event was actually occurring.
Under conditions of chronic stress, glucose levels will remain high if the stressor doesn’t go away. Insulin is the hormone we have to use to deal with this glucose. So we see an increases in insulin secretion and over time insulin resistance can develop, which means our cells become numb to the message of insulin. Multiple studies confirm that increasing cortisol increases insulin resistance. Since high insulin is a major driver of obesity, it should be no surprise that both weight and abdominal fat increase along with it. Cortisol related weight gain, particularly abdominal fat, results in an increased hip-to-waist ratio. This is significant because abdominal fat deposits are more dangerous to health then over-all weight gain.
Plus, when you’re stressed all the time, you may find yourself feeling too overwhelmed to think about a well-balanced meal and instead buy whatever’s convenient. If you’re always forgetting to grab your packed lunch before running out the door only to find an excuse to grab a slice of pizza or a bunch of processed snacks for lunch, then stress is definitely standing in between you and your healthy weight.
What about the opposite? If stress causes weight gain, then can reducing stress cause weight loss?
Studies on mindfulness intervention found that participants were able to use yoga, guided mediations, and group discussion to successfully reduce cortisol and abdominal fat.
Reducing stress can be hard, but it’s vitally important. Contrary to what we might think, sitting in front of the television or computer isn’t a great way to relieve stress. Instead, stress relief should be more of an active process. There are many ways to reduce stress including mindfulness, meditation, yoga, massage therapy and exercise. If you are finding it difficult to create more balance in your life, seek the help of our team of naturopaths who are equipped to provide you with the support to create real change. From a nutritional perspective, we use targeted nutrients including magnesium (helps in the production of GABA), the amino acids L-theanine and Tyrosine, Vitamin C and B Vitamins to support your body’s stress response via different mechanisms. We also use specific herbal medicines to help the body adapt to everyday stress and reduce anxiety including Withania, Passionflower, Rhodiola, Schisandra, Siberian Ginseng and Skullcap just to name a few.
And of course, these efforts will have effects on your health that go far beyond simply losing weight. The number on the scale shouldn’t be the priority for changing your habits … but changing your habits might just change the numbers on the scale!