Recently a few people asked me about stress and if it could be that their high-stress levels are the cause of their inability to lose weight.
Today I will focus on answering this question by explaining the mechanisms that the body initiates in stressful situations and how these can negatively impact our health when the stress becomes chronic.
Stress can be caused either by physical, physiological or psychological forces that disturb the homeostasis of the body. When we are stressed our body mobilizes our nervous system to respond to it, and if the stress lasts long enough, the adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands secrete glucocorticoids (corticosterone, cortisone, and costisol), as well as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine.
These hormones have many implications on our health, but today we will focus on how they influence weight gain.
Firstly, they shut down digestion and shunt blood away from the digestive organs and into the skeletal muscles and heart in preparation for a fight or flight. This means that when we’re under stress our digestion is compromised and our body is not getting enough nutrients, and can’t properly digest our food. Any undigested food feeds microbes in the gut and pathogens grow, which can result in gut dysbiosis, leaky gut and allergies.
The other change these hormones evoke is related to gluconeogenesis, or formation of glucose from glycogen. Put simply, this means, that when we are stressed, the elevated levels of stress hormones will prompt the body to release more sugar into the blood stream from the sugar stored in the liver, and will start breaking down proteins and fat to turn them into sugar. All this is done so that the body has more ready energy in order to handle stressful situations.
Unfortunately the type of stress most of us experience today is not one that involves running or fighting (to burn off all that excess sugar). This means that the glucose is seldom burnt up and if cortisol is continuously secreted, it destabilizes blood sugar and also stresses the pancreas to release more insulin to counteract it.
The liver then converts large amounts of that excess glucose into triglycerides and cholesterol. Much of this newly converted fat is then deposited around the belly and this is how belly fat is related to high cortisol levels.
And so you have noticed that cortisol has the ability to convert protein (lean muscle!) into glucose, which then gets converted back to fat around the stomach.
Continuous secretion of these hormones can exhaust the adrenal glands, which can lead to a condition, called adrenal fatigue.
But not only stress can exhaust the adrenal glands. Stimulants, such as caffeine cause epinephrine release. High sugar and regular alcohol consumption can lead to insulin resistance and unstable blood sugar, which also taxes the adrenal glands.
What can you do to stop this vicious cycle?
The first thing is to obviously investigate the cause of your stress and work on eliminating or at least reducing it. If you can’t eliminate the cause, let’s say because it is related to your job, then it is very important that you change the way you react to stress. A few lifestyle changes can help in this regard, such as mediation, restorative exercises such as yoga, tai chi and practicing stress management techniques.
Try to maintain a daily routine, which includes sleeping and eating patterns. Put more emphasis on quality sleep and make sure you get 8 hours of sleep each night.
Obtain ample and safe exposure to sunlight. Breathing exercises can be very effective when stress starts to build up.
Focus on eating nutritious food that will support your body. Set aside some time for your meals and eat in a calm and peaceful environment to improve digestion. Eat plenty of whole foods that are nutrient dense and have a low glycemic index (low in sugar). Avoid sugar, alcohol and caffeine or other stimulants.
Strenuous exercise can increase the secretion of cortisol, but it can also help burn the excess glucose. So it could be a good idea to do an intense exercise soon after you have been particularly stressed to burn off the glucose and release the tension.