Ever feel like you’re losing control over your weight? You’ve tried dieting, you exercise, yet you can’t seem to shed those stubborn pounds. This cycle is, no doubt, just another number on the list of things which are causing you daily stress.
You may think of stress as a mental state – a response in your brain to an overwhelming situation. It turns out is way more than that. Chronic stress becomes embedded throughout your whole body – and it may be one of the reasons you aren’t able to lose those extra pounds. Stress and weight gain are very closely connected.
It all starts with a perceived threat in your brain, which triggers a whole slew of biochemical reactions in your body including the release of stress hormones adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. These hormones are released to kick your autonomic nervous system into high gear as part of the “fight or flight” response. Your body senses danger, and it’s getting ready to either fight it or run.
Chronic stress happens when the perceived threat remains long-term. Your cortisol levels remain high, and your body stays in a constant state of stress. Cortisol is linked to weight gain because of its effect on other hormones—including the hunger hormone ghrelin—and because of its influence on metabolism.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal glands during times of stress (including physical stress, like exercise). Cortisol has many functions. It regulates the metabolism by choosing which source of energy to use—carbohydrate, fat or protein—at any given time. During times of stress, it suppresses immune function, raises blood pressure, decreases bone formation, and slows digestion. It also plays a role in memory, electrolyte balance, and fetal development.
Stress and Weight Gain
Cortisol is the survival hormone that kicks in right after adrenaline gets us wired up and says “we’ve got to hold on to this energy for later.” It encourages fat storage in our midsection so that we’re never without an energy supply. It also has a close relationship with ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.” (1)
Anxiety triggers eating, and this relationship goes way back to our ancestors—when the man used to hunt for food. Back in the day, we had the same concerns and fears that wild animals have— an instinct for survival. Our stress kicked in when we would spend a lot of energy hunting to bring food back to our families. Cortisol and ghrelin worked together to keep us alive.
Now that food is readily available to us, we turn to it for comfort and stress release. Not only do we turn to food, but during times of stress, we prefer foods that are high in refined sugars and carbohydrates.
Stress and Weight Loss
Even though stress and weight gain are commonly linked, some people will have the opposite reaction in response to stress. High anxiety can impact one’s appetite leading to weight loss. People who experience weight loss during stress are eating fewer calories per day than they are burning.
This can be due to a lack of eating, increase in nervous movement, or chronically high stress hormones which cause temporary but repeated boosts in metabolism.
People who experience weight loss due to anxiety are not necessarily lucky, though. Excessive weight loss can lead to low muscle mass, compromised immune system, osteoporosis, anemia, and many other health complications. The dangers of being underweight are just as pressing as the dangers of being overweight.
Stress, Sleep, and Weight Issues
Stress and sleep problems are closely tied together— and the third component, which often accompanies these problems, is a change in weight.
Stress and sleep create such a tight-knitted cycle, that sometimes it’s hard to determine which came first. Stress can keep you up at night by preventing you from falling asleep or staying asleep. Once you realize that the night is slipping away, you become more stressed, willing yourself to fall asleep—which only keeps you awake for longer.
Sleep deprivation—due to stress, or for any other reason—exacerbates stress, and causes anxiety and even depression, with significantly elevated levels of cortisol in the body.
This vicious cycle of stress and sleep problems disrupts the functioning of our hunger hormones. It also sends signals to our body that we need more energy, so we compensate by eating when really all we need is sleep.
Now that we understand how stress affects the body—with weight gain or weight loss, and sleep problems—we may be more inclined to take action in reducing stress levels. Fortunately, there are many proven methods to stress relief that you can start implementing today.
Studies show that meditation helps to reduce cortisol levels, beating stress and anxiety with a relaxation response.
It’s no secret that regular exercise causes an increase in endorphins. Endorphins are the “feel good” hormones that fight off the effects of cortisol. Not to mention that exercise will keep your metabolism up so that you can lose weight.
3. Get It Out
It’s important to have a safe place to turn to when you need to vent or express frustration and anger. It doesn’t even need to be a person. Get yourself a journal and write it out when you’re feeling stressed— you may even find that writing things down will help you to find a solution.
4. Eat Well
Eat more fruits and vegetables and less processed and refined foods. A 2017 study showed that higher fruit and vegetable intake is linked to lower levels of psychological stress. (2)
Studies show that people who keep to themselves have higher levels of cortisol. Plan to meet with friends once in a while and do a fun activity together. Socializing outside of your workplace and your home is important for keeping stress levels low. (3)(4)(5)