Stress Hormones and what they do to you:
Stress. Weight gain. Why do we all know the two very often go hand in hand? Some people eat less under stress, but their high cortisol levels leave them with unwanted fat deposits notably on their bellies.
Others know all too well the stress and weight gain connection due to the stress eating phenomenon.
I’ll get into all of this shortly. Behind the wide range of both physical and mental reactions to stress are a number of hormones. These are in charge of the myriad of (generally bad) physical and emotional sensations.
First, I would like to discuss and teach what “stress” feels like and why. You’d be amazed at how many people find themselves eating “whatever” while standing in front of an open refrigerator. They don’t know they’re stressed but know that eating sorta kinda makes them feel better.
If this is you, I’ll help you break this cycle. I’d like to remind you I firmly believe that if we all laugh more during our day, we’ll have lower stress hormone levels and less illness. So, in most “stress articles” and especially this one on stress and weight gain, I’m going to reward you intermittent stress breaks. First, let’s talk about the “stress hormones.”
What It Is: It is commonly known as the fight or flight hormone. The adrenal glands produce it after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has occurred.
What It Does:
Adrenaline, along with nor-epinephrine (more on that below), is largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car. Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour.
You return to your original lane, and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense. You’re breathing faster. You may start sweating. That’s adrenaline AKA epinephrine.
Along with the increase in heart rate, adrenaline causes a surge in energy. This comes from the need for the fright to make you take flight, and there’s the energy to do it. Adrenaline directs blood flow to our arms and legs. Heart rate and respiration quicken and we may start sweating. Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands after the brain sends a warning of imminent danger.
What It Is: A hormone similar to adrenaline, released from the adrenal glands and also somewhat from the brain.
What It Does:
It also diverts blood from the skin, the digestive tract, and other non-essential areas and shifts it towards the muscles. This can further aid in any fighting or fleeing you may need to do. The adrenal glands and the brain produce nor-epinephrine.
Nor-epinephrine might seem a bit “redundant” considering adrenaline (which is also called epinephrine) mirrors its effects. However, this is not the case. It works as both a back-up and compliment to adrenaline.
If your adrenal glands are not working well, you can still get a good, solid shot of nor-epinephrine from your brain.
Note that although nor-epinephrine “accompanies” epinephrine in times of stress, it is needed to stay happy and balanced. It does not produce the “jitter” effect which elevated levels of epinephrine will do.
What It Is: A steroid hormone, commonly known as the stress hormone, produced by the adrenal glands.
What It Does:
It takes a little more time (minutes rather than seconds) for you to feel the effects of cortisol in the face of stress because the release of this hormone takes a multi-step process involving two additional minor hormones.
First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to identify a threat. It then sends a message to the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).
CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
When you dwell on a perceived negative situation, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronically elevated levels can lead to health issues as serious as cancer.
Too much cortisol can suppress immune function, increase blood pressure, blood sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to weight gain while ruining weight loss plans, depress mood and a lot more. It is responsible for the stress and weight gain connection.
The “minor players” in the stress cascade:
Endorphins are released in times of stress to act as natural painkillers. Many people report not feeling any pain from injuries until after the threat to life or limb has passed. I’m sure you know some of these stories.
Fibrinogen is a protein that aids in blood clotting, providing some protection against excessive bleeding. Cortisol increases the secretion of fibrinogen which is why high levels of stress cause the body to form plaque in the arteries.
Vasopressin is also known as anti-diuretic hormone or ADH. This hormone causes reabsorption of water by the kidneys, which makes our urine more dark and concentrated. This is why we are less likely to think about bathroom breaks in highly stressful situations.
Lastly, we have the female and male “main hormones,” estrogen and testosterone, which also affect how we react to stress. In addition, brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin, play a role. If we are deficient in any or all of these, we will react more negatively to stress. Therefore, it’s about balancing the mind, the chemicals of the mind, the body, the hormones of the body and more.
What your body does under stress:
When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter what it is, it triggers the release of many chemicals. These chemicals include adrenaline and cortisol as the “worst offenders.” Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury.
In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, the bad news is once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply. This shows a stress and weight gain connection. See?
Today’s human, unlike our “dinner-hunting” ancestors, sits on the couch worrying about how to pay the bills. This activity obviously does not work off much energy dealing with the stressor! Unfortunately, we are stuck with an endocrine system that didn’t get the memo, so your brain is still going to have you reaching for the cookies. Hence, stress and weight gain! This is the intimate connection.
Stress and two important health and weight bio-markers:
If you follow this blog, you are aware inflammation and oxidative stress cause disease and weight gain. If you rid yourself of these two problems you will have fewer issues with weight, increase your ability to stick with diet plans and decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more. Let’s get these topics underway. By the way, we’ll get to the stress, weight gain and belly fat “situation” after this.
In most cases, inflammation is a healthy response to fight and ward off infections. However, chronic internal inflammation is silent and can be severe and deadly. How do you know if you “have it”? The vast majority of people don’t know they are inflamed. If you are overweight and/or eating processed sugary food, you have inflammation.
Those with arthritis who take the steps I recommend (see arthritis articles) will FEEL “less inflamed” because their joints will stop aching. However, most people only know if they get a disease (and even then they question) or if they have a “connection” with an Anti-aging doctor who orders proper blood tests (serum insulin, fibrinogen, and CRP). Nevertheless, research shows people with poor health habits, including those eating a non-anti-inflammatory diet, have higher levels of inflammation and disease.
Below I will discuss how you can change your diet and other issues that contribute to the problem of inflammation and disease. This is a slight shift from the “stress discussion,” but recall stress increases inflammation, and it’s a bad thing. Let’s discuss the whole issue, why don’t we?
The Causes of Inflammation: What you eat, what you weigh, and what’s in your “genes”:
Being overweight causes inflammation. Currently, 65% of adults fall into this category!
Currently, 65% are also eating a typical American processed food, fast food diet. This causes inflammation.
BOTH of these issues are fixable by eating healthy foods to reach and maintain an average weight.
Having a genetic predisposition for inflammation is a contributing factor too. This can be taken care of with anti-inflammatory supplements specifically with curcumin because of the multiple benefits. I recommend a high dosage of 4 capsules taken twice daily.
There are some great anti-inflammatory supplements which can also take the place of anti-inflammatory medication such as Aleve and Motrin. These are present in multiple shops in the inflammation section. There are even special additions made for people with fibromyalgia, arthritis and those in need of muscle soreness relief.
Oxidative Stress and stress:
Having oxidative stress: Note that having one of these things makes the other one worse (inflammation and oxidative stress). Even worse, stress contributes to both. You may be unfamiliar with oxidative stress, so I’ll explain it briefly. It is the opposite of how many servings of organic non-GMO fruits/vegetables you consume on a daily basis with 12-15 being the goal.
Oxidative stress is made worse with pollution, travel, and again, stress. The 12-15 servings goal is high, and I struggle with it myself. I fix mine with two reds/greens drinks per day. This is how I have patients and AgeWell Solutions annual consultation members fix theirs’ too.
Do we know how stress causes oxidative stress?
Stress causes an increase in cortisol. That in turn binds to cytosolic glucocorticoid receptors (GR). These translocate into our cells of respiration called mitochondria. This increases mitochondrial membrane potential, calcium holding capacity, and mitochondrial oxidation.
This then leads to an increase in the production of super-oxide, hydrogen peroxide, and hydroxyl radicals. All of these by-products cause oxidative stress or more specifically a state of cellular oxidative stress.
This then causes oxidative damage to DNA, protein carbonyl formation, and membrane lipid peroxidation (LPO). That’s enough of that, don’t you think? Me too. Just know “OS” is bad, causes diseases, is common and quite fixable. Since it increases cortisol, you now know it is part of the stress and weight gain “loop.”
Stress and weight gain:
10 ways stress makes you overweight and diabetic:
When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus activates and triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (to help start your day) and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you can fall asleep at bedtime).
Chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but it also disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. It’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks havoc on your body. Regarding stress and weight gain, this is what happens:
Increases the rate at which fat is stored
Increases belly fat
Brings on hunger and sugar cravings
Makes it harder for glucose to get into cells
Reduces the ability to burn fat; I can help decrease body fat and increase lean body mass with the addition of bcaa’s (branched chain amino acids such as egg white nutrition) and acetyl carnitine supplements.
Reduces important fat burning hormones such as DHEA, testosterone, human growth hormone and certain thyroid hormones
Raises blood sugar
Raises levels of fatty acids and triglycerides in blood
Impacts sleep; When cortisol levels are “messed up” you lose energy. Usually, you’ll need help staying asleep, but often you’ll need help falling asleep too.
Causes the #1 type of non-hunger eating: “stress eating”; This is fixed by managing stress and losing weight with the right natural metabolism boosters, natural appetite suppressants and leptin-ghrelin “hunger hormones” fixers. I’ll get into this more. Note: If we don’t fix the root cause of stress and weight gain connection that weight loss will be difficult and transient.
Emotional Eating during stress
Do you find yourself mindlessly eating a carton of ice cream while sniffling about your latest romantic rejection? Do you eat French fries in front of the computer as you furiously try to make a work deadline?
Perhaps, you’re a small business owner desperately trying to make ends meet when you suddenly realize your waistline has blossomed.There’s the culprit once again. Stress and weight gain are intimately linked due to the most common type of non-hunger eating – stress eating.
If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you’re not alone, and it’s actually NOT your fault.
Stress that is long-term is truly just plain awful for weight management. It increases our appetites (or so we think), makes us hold onto the fat we’ve gained, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle. The stress and weight gain connection is not in our heads. In fact, it’s quite real.
What about anxiety in general?
Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. We may burn off some extra calories fidgeting or running around cleaning our houses because we just can’t sit still. However, this can simultaneously be a trigger for “emotional eating.”
Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response. In the most recent American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, 40% of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way.
As a corollary, 42% reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with stress. Weight is not the only reason (as I have already mentioned) to seek out good natural stress relief.
Being a couch potato also increases the temptation to overeat. What else are you going to do with your hands and your mouth, right?
It also leads to an inactive lifestyle, which means those extra calories aren’t getting burned off.
Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” meaning that your brain turns to “worry,” rather than focusing on the taste of the food, how much you’ve eaten, or when you are feeling full.
When you eat mindlessly you will likely eat more, but, unfortunately, you will feel less satisfied. Inactivity, anxiety or stress and weight gain all go hand in hand.
Cravings and Fast Food:
When we are chronically stressed, we crave “comfort foods” such as a bag of potato chips or Oreos. These foods tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt. We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons.
Cortisol may cause us to crave more fat and sugar. Eating starchy and sugary foods elevates the brain chemical, serotonin, which calms us down. We also may have memories from childhood, such as the smell of freshly baked pies, which lead us to associate sweet foods with comfort.
When we’re stressed, we are more likely to drive through a “fast foodie place” rather than take the time and energy to shop for and then cook a healthy meal. We Americans are less likely to cook and eat dinner at home than people from many other countries. We also work more hours and take fewer vacations. Who signed up for that one? No wonder we have more stress and weight gain problems than other developed countries!
Belly Fat and Stress
As promised, let’s discuss the first noticeable fat “clump” caused by cortisol. It is especially noticeable if you are of normal or close to normal weight. It’s the stress and weight gain in the belly; belly-fat connection. This’s often the most stubborn fat to lose. The details are below.
When our ancestors were previously fighting pestilence and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies. As a result, when we are chronically stressed we are prone to getting an extra layer of “visceral fat” deep in our bellies. We also accumulate unsightly belly fat keeping us from fitting into our skinny jeans or we get those dreaded “muffin tops.”
Excess belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. The fat releases chemicals triggering inflammation, which again, increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes and more. Even worse, excess cortisol slows down metabolism because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose for all that hard mental and physical work dealing with the threat. The brain runs on glucose, and your body is always protecting your brain health.
Losing belly fat is a struggle for many women during pre-menopausal and menopausal years. Progesterone losses start, on average, in the 30’s. Stress levels also go up as women cope with kids, families, aging parents, jobs and more. These are factors adding to belly fat.
With menopause, estrogen decreases, and that puts on belly fat. These factors coupled with hormonally induced cravings and the imbalance of hormones like leptin and ghrelin due to years of unhealthy eating present a recipe for weight gain AND belly fat. Not to worry! There are remedies about ridding yourself of belly fat and, specifically, belly fat in menopausal years in the article, unexplained weight gain.
You have learned about stress hormones and how the stress and weight gain connection “works.” There are many resources on this website for stress including blogs and videos.
Now you know decreasing stress will reduce and, hopefully, eliminate stress eating. Doing so will improve your sleep, energy and get you moving more. Reducing stress and, therefore, cortisol is mandatory for getting rid of belly fat.
For weight loss that is lasting you need to address inflammation and oxidative stress. There are articles ALL over this website on how to do that. The easiest place to start is to find the anti-inflammatory or nutritional ketosis diet and get started.