Could Stress Be Preventing You From Losing Weight?
The simple answer? Absolutely! Being constantly stressed out turns you into a hungry, carb-eating, fat-storing machine. If you don’t want to take my word for it, feel free to read on for the facts.
The Stress Response
I’m willing to bet you’ve already heard about the stress-cortisol-belly fat connection, but just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, I’ll summarize the mechanics of this in a nutshell. When your brain perceives stress of any form, it releases specific chemicals to make sure you will emerge from the stressful event unscathed. Scientist Hans Selye called it General Adaptation Syndrome, but it’s more commonly referred to as “fight-or-flight.” The same chemicals that allowed our ancestors to avoid becoming a predator’s next meal make it possible for you to sit down and bang out a lengthy report at lightning speed just before the deadline. These chemicals are wonderful things – in small, sudden bursts. If you’re an average modern-day American who is trying to squeeze 36 hours’ worth of work, family and social obligations into a 24 hour day, they are your waistlines’ worst nightmare.
Losing Weight, Cortisol and Belly Fat
For the fight-or-flight response to occur, your neuro-endocrine system releases 3 main chemicals – epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are short-acting chemicals designed to help you remove yourself from danger as quickly and efficiently as possible. They cause shunting of blood from non-vital (GI track) to vital (heart, lungs, brain) organs and convert amino acids to glucose to increase available energy sources. This makes you hyperalert, fast and strong. Cortisol, on the other hand, is long-acting. Its main goal is to help you recover from the assault to your endocrine system, grabbing excess energy sources and storing them in fat cells readily available for the next time this occurs. These are your “visceral fat stores” and guess where they are? In the deep layers of your abdomen, around your organs. And because they’re fat “stores,” they do not go away easily with diet, exercise, body wraps, or anything else you’ll be willing to try. Excess visceral fat is linked to diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. It’s also linked to tight jeans, a widening waistline, and the purchase of mumu’s.
Cortisol and Carbs
Next time you sit down and devour a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or mindlessly plow through a bag of Doritos instead of eating your dinner, it might have more to do with your cortisol level than your willpower for losing weight. Researchers have found that cortisol doesn’t only affect where you store fat, it affects your food choices, too. Curious about the effect of cortisol on diet and appetite, researchers monitored the eating habits of study subjects both with and without cortisol stimulation. Interestingly enough, despite cortisol levels, the subjects ate the same amount of food. However, when cortisol levels were elevated, the participants consumed foods that were higher sugar and fat.
Stress and the Hunger Hormone
Cortisol gets a pretty bad rap when it comes to the stress-weight gain relationship, but it’s not the only player on the field. Meet ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.” Ideally, when the body runs out of immediate energy sources, cells in the stomach release ghrelin to let your brain know “hey, we need fuel!” Your brain then tells you that you’re hungry, and you seek out food. In order to preserve energy until you can find your next meal, ghrelin slows down your metabolism and inhibits the breakdown of fat. If ghrelin levels are elevated for too long, it will make sure that anything you’ve consumed that is not immediately needed for energy is stored in the abdominal area, much like cortisol. Your body is making sure that next time you are unable to locate a food source for an extended period of time, there is an immediate, nearby source of fuel. Again, great for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, not so great for us modern folk. Scientists have found that chronic stress leads to an elevation of this hunger-inducing, metabolism-slowing, fat-storing hormone.
Stress and Fat Metabolism
Are you ready for some more bad news? Researchers at University of Florida Health just released new study findings that places the protein betatrophin on the map when it comes to stress and weight gain. Researchers found that exposure to environmental and metabolic stress led to elevated levels of betatrophin, and elevated levels of betatropin led to adipose triglyceride lipase (ATGL) supression. ATGL is a key enzyme involved in the breakdown of fat stores. So, high stress leads to high betatropin, which leads to high fat-retention.
Stop the Cycle
Isn’t that lovely? It seems cortisol, ghrelin, and betatrophin have teamed up to make your weight loss battle that much more difficult. You get stressed, you gain weight, which stresses you out even more, so you gain MORE weight.
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable. Most of us know of a few coping skills we can implement to help manage stress (yoga, exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, journaling, reevaluating priorities, keeping a realistic schedule, the list goes on). What happens when these things just don’t work fast enough?!
If you think your stress levels might be interfering in your battle with the bulge, there are certain nutritional supplements can help normalize these hormone levels, aid in relaxation, and counter their negative effects (you know, while you’re waiting for the deep breathing and silent meditating in tree pose to help calm your mind). Medical professionals specializing in hormone imbalance, nutrition, and functional or complementary/alternative medicine can help you select which supplements would be best for you.