Stress and weight gain. Why do we all know that the two very often go hand in hand? Some people eat less under stress, but their high cortisol levels leave them with unwanted fat deposits-notably on their bellies.
Others know all too well the stress and weight gain connection due to the stress eating phenomenon.
I’ll get into all of this. Behind the wide range of both physical and mental reactions to stress are a number of hormones that are in charge of the myriad of (generally bad) physical and emotional sensations.
You will learn what “stress” feels like and why I’d like to talk about that first. You’d be amazed at how many people find themselves eating “whatever,” standing in front of an open refrigerator. And they don’t know they’re stressed but know that eating makes them feel better.
If this is you, I’ll help you break this cycle. I’d like to remind you that I firmly believe that if we all laughed more during our day that we’d have lower stress hormone levels and less illness. So on most “stress articles” and especially this one on stress and weight gain I’m going to give you intermittent stress breaks. Let’s first talk about the “stress hormones.”
What It Is: Commonly known as the fight or flight hormone, it is produced by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has occurred.
What It Does:
Adrenaline, along with norepinephrine (more on that below), is primarily responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car. Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour.
You return to your original lane, and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense, you’re breathing faster, you may start sweating. That’s adrenaline. AKA epinephrine.
Along with the increase in heart rate, adrenaline causes a surge in energy. This comes from the need for the fright to make you take flight and there’s the energy to do it. Adrenaline directs blood flow to our arms and legs.
Heart rate and respiration quicken, and we may start sweating. Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands after the brain sends a warning of imminent danger.
What It Is: A hormone similar to adrenaline, released from the adrenal glands and also somewhat from the brain.
What It Does:
Norepinephrine is a hormone that is very similar to adrenaline. It makes you very alert, more responsive and invigorated.
It also diverts blood from the skin, the digestive tract, and other non-essential areas, shifting more blood to your muscles. This can further aid in any fighting or fleeing that you may need to do. The adrenal glands and the brain produce norepinephrine.
Although norepinephrine might seem a bit “redundant” considering that adrenaline (which is also called epinephrine) mirrors its effects; it works as a back- up and as a compliment to adrenaline.
If your adrenal glands are not working well, you can still get a good, solid shot of norepinephrine from your brain.
Note that although nor-epinephrine “accompanies” epinephrine in times of stress, it is needed to stay happy and balanced and does not produce the “jitter” effect which elevated levels of epinephrine will do.
What It Is: A steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands.
What It Does:
It takes a little more time- minutes, rather than seconds- for you to feel the effects of cortisol in the face of stress because the release of this hormone takes a multi-step process involving two additional minor hormones.
First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to identify a threat. It then sends a message to the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).
CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
When you dwell on a perceived negative situation, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronically elevated levels can lead to health issues as serious as cancer.
Too much cortisol can suppress immune function, increase blood pressure, blood sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to weight gain while ruining weight loss plans, depress mood and a lot more. It is responsible for the stress and weight gain connection.
4. The “Minor Players” in The Stress Cascade
Endorphins are released in times of stress to act as natural painkillers. Many people report not feeling any pain from injuries until after the threat to life or limb has passed. You have read some of these stories I’m sure.
Fibrinogen is a protein that aids in blood clotting, providing some protection against excessive bleeding. Cortisol increases the secretion of fibrinogen which is why high levels of stress cause the body to form plaque in the arteries.
Vasopressin is also known as anti-diuretic hormone or ADH. This hormone causes reabsorption of water by the kidneys, which makes our urine more dark and concentrated. This is why we are less likely to think about bathroom breaks in highly stressful situations.
5. Sex Hormone
Lastly, we have the female and male “main hormones” estrogen and testosterone which also affect how we react to stress. And brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin play a role too.
Most of the rules here are that if we are deficient in any/all of these, we will react more negatively to stress. So it’s about balancing the mind, the chemicals of the mind, the body, the hormones of the body and more.
What Your Body Does Under Stress
Releases a Cascade of Chemical – Adrenaline and Cortisol
When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter what it is, even a big credit card bill- it triggers the release of a cascade of chemicals, and you know what they are.
They, of course, include adrenaline and cortisol as the “worst offenders.” Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alerted, ready for action and able to withstand an injury.
In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.”
However, the bad news is that once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply. There you go with the stress and weight gain connection. See?
Today’s human, unlike our “dinner-hunting” ancestors, sits on the couch worrying about how to pay the bills. This activity apparently does not work off much energy at all dealing with the stressor!
Unfortunately, we are stuck with an endocrine system that didn’t get the memo, so your brain is still going to tell you to reach for that plate of cookies. Hence- stress and weight gain- the intimate connection.
Stress and 2 Important Health and Weight Biomarkers
If you have followed this blog, you know that inflammation and oxidative stress cause disease and weight gain. If you were to get rid of these two problems you would have fewer issues with weight, be able to stick with diet plans more and have less of a chance of getting heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more.
So let’s get these two topics out of the way. And yes we’ll get to the stress and weight gain and even belly fat gain “situation” after this.
In most cases, inflammation is seen as a healthy response to fight and ward off infections. However, chronic internal inflammation is silent but can be quite serious and even deadly. How do you know if you “have it”? The vast majority of people don’t know that indeed they are inflamed. If you are overweight and/or eating processed sugary foods, you have inflammation.
Those with arthritis who then take the steps I recommend (see arthritis articles) will FEEL “less inflamed” because their joints will stop aching. However, for most of us-we only know it if we get a disease (and even then perhaps we don’t!) Or, we know it because we have a “connection” with an Anti-aging doctor who orders the right blood tests- a serum insulin, fibrinogen, and a CRP.
However, all blood tests aside, research has shown that people with poor health habits and that includes eating the opposite of an anti-inflammatory diet have a marked increased levels of inflammation and therefore disease.
Below I will discuss how you can change your diet and other issues which contribute to the problem of inflammation and therefore disease. This is a slight shift in the “stress discussion” but recall stress increases inflammation, and it’s a bad thing so let’ discuss the whole issue, why don’t we?
The Causes of Inflammation: What You Eat, What You Weigh, and What’s in Your “Genes.”
Being overweight which is now over 65% of adults! And this is now also eating a typical American processed food, fast food diet. BOTH of these issues are fixed-quite-a-bit by eating healthy foods to reach and maintain an average weight.
Having a genetic predisposition for inflammation. You can take care of this nicely with anti-inflammatory supplements with – curcumin being one I recommend a lot dose 4 caps 2x daily – because of the multiple benefits.
There are some great anti-inflammatory supplements which can also take the place of anti-inflammatory medication such as Aleve and Motrin which are found in the store in the inflammation section. And if you have fibromyalgia, arthritis or need muscle soreness relief there are extra special additions for you.
Oxidative Stress and Stress
Having Oxidative Stress: Note that having one of these things makes the other one worse (Inflammation and oxidative stress). And yes stress contributes to both. If you haven’t read about oxidative stress, I’ll sum it up quickly. It’s the opposite of how many servings of organic non-GMO fruits/vegetables you consume on a daily basis with 12-15 being the goal.
Oxidative stress is worsened with pollution, travel, and again, stress. I know about the 12-15 servings-it’s a goal I can’t hit either. I fix mine with two reds/greens drinks per day. This is how I have patients and AgeWell Solutions annual consultation members fix theirs’ too.
Do we know how stress causes oxidative stress?
Stress causes an increase in cortisol. That in turn cytosolic glucocorticoid receptors (GR). These translocate into our cells of respiration called mitochondria. This increases mitochondrial membrane potential, calcium holding capacity, and mitochondrial oxidation.
This then leads to an increase in the production of superoxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radicals. All of these by-products cause oxidative stress or more specifically a state of cellular oxidative stress.
This then causes oxidative damage to DNA, protein carbonyl formation, and membrane lipid peroxidation (LPO). That’s enough of that, don’t you think? Me too. Just know “OS” is bad, causes diseases, is common and quite fixable. And since it increases cortisol you know it is part of the stress and weight gain “loop.”
Stress and Weight Gain
9 Ways Stress Makes You Overweight and Diabetic
When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol, and you know this by now, right?
Cortisol is normally released in a particular rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you start your day), and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you can fall asleep at bedtime).
Chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but it also disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. When it comes to your stress and weight gain, here’s what goes on:
- It increases the rate at which you store fat
- It increases your belly fat -more to come on this, promise
- It makes you hungry and crave sugar
- It makes it harder for glucose to get into your cells
- It reduces your ability to burn fat but not to worry I can help you decrease body fat and increase lean body mass. It contributes to adding bcaa’s (branched chain amino acids such as egg white nutrition) and acetylcarnitine weight loss supplements.
- It reduces important fat burning hormones: DHEA, testosterone, human growth hormone and certain thyroid hormones
- It raises your blood sugar
- It increases the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in your blood
- Let’s not forget sleep- when your cortisol levels are “messed up” you lose energy and then at about the same time you need all sorts of “sleep help”- usually you’ll need help staying asleep but often you’ll also need help falling asleep.
And of course, it causes the #1 type of non-hunger eating- “stress-eating”- fixed with managing stress and shedding the pounds with the right natural metabolism boosters, natural appetite suppressants and leptin-ghrelin “hunger hormones” fixers. I’ll get into this more at the end. Just make a mental note that if we don’t fix the cause of the stress and weight gain connection that weight loss will be challenging and transient.
Emotional Eating During Stress
Have you ever found yourself mindlessly eating a carton of ice cream while you sniffle about your latest romantic rejection? How about eating French fries in front of your computer as you furiously try to make a work deadline?
Maybe you’re a small business owner desperately trying to make ends meet when you suddenly realize your waistline has blossomed.There’s the culprit once again. Stress and weight gain are intimately linked due to the most common type of non-hunger eating – stress eating.
If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you’re not alone, and it’s NOT your fault.
Stress that is long-term is truly just plain awful for weight management. It increases our appetites (or so we think), makes us hold onto the fat we’ve gained, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle. The stress and weight gain connection are not in our heads- it’s quite real.
What About Anxiety in General?
Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. We may burn off some extra calories fidgeting or run around cleaning our houses because we just plain can’t sit still. However, at the same time, this can also be a trigger for “emotional eating.”
Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. In the most recent American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America:” survey, 40% of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way.
As a corollary, 42% reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with stress. Weight is not the only reason (as I have already mentioned) to seek out good natural stress relief.
Being a couch potato also increases the temptation to overeat because what else are you going to do with your hands and your mouth, right?
It also leads to an inactive lifestyle, which means that those extra calories aren’t getting burned off.
Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” meaning that your brain turns to “worry”, rather than focusing on the taste of the food, how much you’ve eaten, or when you are feeling full.
When you eat mindlessly, you will likely eat more, but unfortunately, you will feel less satisfied. Inactivity, anxiety or stress and weight gain all go hand in hand.
Cravings and Fast Food
When we are chronically stressed, we crave “comfort foods,” such as a bag of potato chips or a bag of Oreos. These foods tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt. We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons.
Cortisol may cause us to crave more fat and sugar. Eating starchy and sugary foods elevates the brain chemical called serotonin which calms us down. We also may have memories from childhood, such as the smell of freshly baked pies, which lead us to associate sweet foods with comfort.
When we’re stressed, we are more likely to drive through, meaning not even get up out of our car, a “fast foodie place” rather than take the time and energy to shop for and then cook a healthy meal.
We Americans are less likely to cook and eat dinner at home than people from many other countries, and we also work more hours and take fewer vacations. Who signed up for that one? No wonder we have more stress and weight gain problems than other developed countries!
Belly Fat and Stress
As promised, here is an extra section on the first fat “clump” most people notice which is due to cortisol, especially if you are of normal or close to normal weight. Yep, it’s the stress and weight gain in the belly=belly-fat connection. And it’s often the most stubborn fat to get rid of. Not impossible so stay the course. Here are the details.
In the days when our ancestors were fighting off pestilence and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies. The unfortunate result for us is that when we are chronically stressed, we are prone to getting an extra layer of “visceral fat” deep in our bellies.
And of course, we also accumulate that unsightly belly fat that keeps us from fitting into our skinny jeans. Or we get those dreaded “muffin tops.”
Excess belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. The fat releases chemicals triggering inflammation, which as you recall, increases the likelihood that we will develop heart disease or diabetes and more.
To make things worse, excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism, because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose for all that hard mental and physical work dealing with the threat. Your brain runs on glucose, and your body is always protecting your brain health.
Losing belly fat is a struggle for many women during pre-menopausal and menopausal years. Progesterone losses start, on average, in the 30’s and that is a factor in adding belly fat. Then stress levels go up as women cope with kids, families, aging parents, jobs and more. That puts on belly fat.
Then with menopause, estrogen goes down, and you guessed it, that puts on belly fat. Take all of that and couple it with hormonally induced cravings, and the imbalance of hormones like leptin and ghrelin due to years of unhealthy eating and you have a recipe for weight gain AND belly fat. Not to worry, there are answers regarding how to get rid of belly fat and specifically belly fat in the menopausal years in the article called unexplained weight gain.