We have all heard time and time again that stressing out too much can cause weight gain, but why? And how? The science behind stress and weight gain is a hot topic in the fitness industry. Every human interprets situations and information differently, which means stress can arise from all different directions. It could be work, family, anxiety, or even internal stressors we don’t even know about; but they can all have an impact on our overall health and well-being.
Stress is defined as a “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” The body can respond to stressors either mentally, physically or emotionally.
I am going to talk about the physical response to stress that is, weight gain.
When a threat is perceived by the body, the CNS responds in a fight or flight manner. This means adrenaline and cortisol are going to be released into the blood stream and will cause a sequence of events. The heart rate will rise, the blood vessels will dilate and the core temperature will rise. This is your body’s way of dealing with the threat immediately.
But overtime, when we are under constant stress, we don’t realize the responses are happening and it just becomes another normal day for us.
But this is where the problems begin.
Too much secretion of cortisol is the main culprit of weight gain. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced in the adrenal glands and released when the body is in a fasting state. Cortisol is released by the body to bring up blood sugar via gluconeogenesis (the formation of glucose from its constituents) when the body is not receiving energy from outside sources, like food. When our cortisol levels are high for an extended period of time (due to stressors such as fasting or inflammation), it begins to suppress the immune system and increases the production of glucose. If our glucose levels remain high (as we continue to break down muscle tissue to form energy), it will trigger an increase in insulin and therefore increase fat storage around the abdomen.
There are also different stressors that can cause epinephrine receptors to shut down, a sympathetic nervous system response of fight or flight, which leads to slowing down the digestive and reproductive systems to conserve energy.
This then causes problems absorbing nutrients or making hormones, which can stress the body out even more. As you can see, it is cycle that once it starts it is difficult to stop from spiraling out of control.
High levels of cortisol is also linked to increased appetite and sugar cravings, which is where the weight gain comes from. When stress levels are high for an extended period of time, the body is constantly craving bad foods (refined sugars and carbs). Therefore, as the body becomes more and more stressed, we as humans tend to eat more and more foods to satisfy our cravings. When we eat too much refined sugar, we cause a spike in our blood sugar levels and store more fat than normal.
So now we have cortisol relocating fat to our belly and decreased insulin sensitivity storing excess sugar as fat.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Read more about cortisol and weight gain specifically in my blog post.
When we think of stress we think of the big events like planning a wedding, changing jobs, moving to a new city or having a baby. But we forget that there are several other events that are included under the stress umbrella that aren’t just physical. It could be too much exercise, unbalanced hormone levels, anxiety, bad food choices and much more. Not only is it sometimes hard to determine certain stressors in our life, we might not even know that internal stress is what is causing our issues.
Below are a list of signs and symptoms related to excess stress:
• Feeling “out of it”
• Clenched jaw
• Body aches and pains
• Sleep dysfunction
• Heart palpations
• Tension in the neck/back/shoulders
• Weight fluctuations
• Stomach pains
• Digestive problems
• Food cravings
• Decreased sex drive
• Feelings of anxiety or depression
• Skin rashes
• Hair loss
• Suppressed immune system
The hardest part about recognizing these signs is knowing they are arising because of stress.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the daily grind that we don’t realize the symptoms we are feeling could be prevented. We think that stress is normal (which in some instances, it is) but it reality it is acknowledged as a threat by the body and should be by us as well.
Overtime, high amounts of stress can not only cause acute symptoms, but also chronic. Researchers have determined that stress is linked to some of the leading causes of death in the world such as heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
Not only is it important to recognize signs of stress, it is also important to find ways to reduce stress that work for you.
• Listen to music
• Take a bath/shower
• Read a book
• Call a friend/family member
• Get a massage
• Get outside
• Change your scenery
• Take time off
• Talk yourself through it
• Get enough sleep and water
• Write down your thoughts feelings
• Try oils or natural remedies
• Fuel your body with healthy foods
• Try something new (workout class, acupuncture)
• Listen to a podcast/book about how others deal with stress
• Coloring or journaling
• Spend time with loved ones
• Do your favorite activity (hiking, nails, boxing)
• Learn to say no (don’t try to take on everything at once)
• Indulge in intimacy
• Be mindful
No two people are alike when it comes to dealing with stress. Some people enjoy fresh air and exercise while others enjoy reading or writing. Find what works for you, and stick to it.
This doesn’t mean that once we are overcome by copious amounts of stress we should then try to reduce it. We should be actively trying to decrease stressors in our life by participating in self-care and love on a daily basis. It could be anything from daily devotionals and meditation, to chiropractor visits and couch cuddles. Set some time aside every day to dive into something that makes you happy and fuels your soul.
Stress is evil.
Not only does it affect you internally (redirecting energy to form excess amounts of unwanted hormones) but also externally like your mood and eating habits. Unfortunate in today’s society, stress is inevitable. This is because jobs have become more demanding and harmful toxins have become more prevalent.
Remember, stress doesn’t just come from your own personal life but also from inhaling environmental pollutants and food pesticides. So there is no way to completely rid our lives from all stress, but we can find ways to simply eliminate it from certain aspects; like what we put internally and externally on our body or how we approach certain situations.
Try not to become overwhelmed but to deal with stress in a way that works best for you. We cannot and do not have control over everything, but we can manage the things we do have control over.
So when you find yourself becoming stressed and wanting to indulge in sugary foods or bad habits, remind yourself that it will only make it worse. Take a deep breath and work through the situation. Spending a little time every day to reduce stress and do what you love, if only for 10 minutes.