What has stress got to do with weight gain?

4 May 2023
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It’s all about the cortisol connection…

If you’re struggling to lose weight or even to maintain your weight then you might be battling against your hormones, and in particular, cortisol, the stress hormone.
We humans evolved to live with acute stress, short sharp periods of intense stress, like when our ancestors were out hunting or being chased by a predator, or fighting off a marauding tribe. During these periods, they switched into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the stress response to be able to run or fight, to deal with whatever life-or-death danger was facing them, it also put them on high alert, sensitive to changes in their environment and the reactions of others around them.
However, in the main, their days were more stress-less, spending long periods of time in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), the rest and digest or relaxation mode.

But we don’t.

In our modern, past-paced and busy lives, most of us live with chronic stress, constant ‘microstresses’ that mean spending far too much time in SNS (stress response) and not enough time in the PSNS (relaxation mode), which has a number of knock-on effects:
  1. A constant release of cortisol instead of a targeted release, which can start to impact on your body, developing issues like leaky gut syndrome, tension in the muscles and joints, headaches
  2. Cortisol creates a strong desire to eat and it programs your body to store fat – that’s because if you’re stressed, your brain thinks you might need those extra resources for action, they’re your rocket boosters (only you never end up actually using them…)
  3. When you’re stressed, your brain switches off some of your non-essential functions in favour of keeping you in that hyper-alert state because survival trumps everything, so you might start to develop issues with your digestion and bowel movements, with your immune function which results in things like skin rashes and catching coughs and colds, with your reproductive system, your libido disappears…
  4. Being in a constant state of stress could be promoting stress-eating – that’s the action or habit of eating or over-eating as a means to alleviate stress or anxiety, there’s a need to find ways to make yourself feel better in the moment (even if you know it’s not good for you and actually makes you feel worse later)
  5. Your brain uses food to get a break from the over-stimulation that’s going on around. If you feel stressed, overwhelmed, then your brain prompts you to get up and go and get something to eat – it’s not about the food, it’s about the activity of moving away from the stress for a moment
  6. Too much cortisol in your system can inhibit insulin release, which messes with your blood sugar levels, it can result in hyperglycemia, increase your risk of developing type II diabetes, contributing to metabolic syndrome (a combination of type II diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity)
  7. Too much cortisol can also affect your menopause symptoms, it interferes with the release of oestrogen, and it can literally ‘steal’ progesterone as it breaks it down to make more cortisol
  8. Cortisol affects your sleep too, because if you have cortisol swilling round your body that indicates to your brain that there’s stress and danger around – and your brain is not going to switch off and let you be as vulnerable as sleep makes you if there’s danger around! And when you don’t sleep well, you’re more moody, irritable, more likely to reach for sugary fatty foods to shore up flagging energy levels, and that makes you feel even worse, which sets off another release of cortisol…
  9. Typically too much cortisol in your system shows in that extra band of fat around the middle, it tends not to be evenly distributed over your body, there’s a strong connection between cortisol and middle-age spread!
So, stress is not your friend.
And it’s not the big events that are the problem, its the everyday microstresses… 
Read more about it here

What can you do about it?

Firstly, develop your self-awareness – what are your stress triggers, notice the thoughts that run through your head, are there any patterns to your stress?
Then think about how you can manage them better – perhaps spend less time with certain people, or get help if something is overwhelming you, maybe you need to put boundaries around demands from others?
And what helps you to stay well – what activities can you do that bring joy into your life, that support your health and wellbeing? These become a preventative, things that help you build resilience such as being more present in your life, engaging more with people around you, going for walks out in nature, exercising, building a regular practice of deep breathing or meditation, grounding exercises, whatever you enjoy that helps to create a little brain space…
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing stress, it can take some trial and error to find what works for you but it’s well worth spending a little time and effort finding out.
And if you want more help with weight loss then take a look at my KICKSTART Programme – the mindset approach to losing weight for good!

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