How Stress Hormones Keep You From Your Weight Loss Goals

Stress

There are many, many effects that stress hormones, mainly cortisol, have on your body, including the link that people with abdominal obesity tend to have higher cortisol levels.

In fact, there are actually many links between stress hormones and weight. These include the effect stress has on digestion and gut health, inflammation and the immune system. Stress can cause cravings, increased appetite, and “stress eating.” It can promote fat storage around the waist with its effect on insulin sensitivity. Stress can also be mood-busting and demotivating, not to mention how it worsens sleep.

Let’s dive into each one and see how stress hormones keep you from your weight loss goals

  1. Poor Digestion and Gut Health

Being in a state of stress puts digestion on the back burner. This is because your body is ready to “fight or flee,” rather than “rest and digest.”

One of the most obvious impacts stress has on digestion is “transit time.” You may notice that stress can either quickly speed up how fast your food moves through you (diarrhea). Or, it may slow it down quite a bit (constipation). Neither one of these is ideal.

So, even if you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense whole foods, you may become nutrient deficient! And proper nutrition is needed at the best of times, let alone when you’re stressed and trying to lose weight.

New research is also showing the impact that stress has on our friendly gut microbes. We’re just beginning to understand the influence that our gut microbes have on all aspects of health, including weight loss.

Stress is also linked with tiny holes or “leaks” in your digestive tract. This means that incompletely digested food particles can get into your body through these leaks. This can cause alot of inflammation.

Which leads us to the second major way stress keeps you from your weight loss goals.

2. Inflammation and Immune System Dysregulation

Guess where over 70% of your immune system is located? Right around your digestive tract. So, you can imagine if chronic stress is messing with your digestion, it’s going to also mess with your immune system.

More and more research is suggesting that inflammation is part of many chronic diseases. When you’re chronically stressed, this affects your immune system which is supposed to control inflammation. It can make your immune system either hypervigilant, or less-responsive. And both of these can keep you from reaching your weight loss goals.

If your immune system is hypervigilant, you can develop high inflammatory levels. If your immune system is less-responsive, it can allow your body to get sick more often, and stay sick longer.

For optimal health, and the ability to lose weight, you want your immune system to work properly (not too high, nor too low).

3. Cravings, Increased Appetite, and “Stress Eating”

When you’re stressed do you reach for celery? Or do you prefer fatty or sugary snacks?

Many people tend to eat more food, particularly comfort food. Things that tend to be fatty and sugary. And there is science to back this up. Scientists are now looking at interactions between stress hormones and the “hunger” and “fullness” hormones.

I don’t even have to tell you how this is going to keep you from your weight loss goals.

4. Insulin Sensitivity

Stress also increases your blood sugar, to make sure that your muscles have the fuel (sugar) they need to “fight” or “flee.” And if your muscles are not working and using up that excess blood sugar (i.e. you’re not running for your life), your body secretes insulin to re-absorb that sugar into your cells.

This increase in both cortisol and insulin promote both insulin resistance and fat storage., especially around the mid-section.

5. Mood-busting and Demotivating

Stress can not only bring down your mood, but that can also be terribly demotivating. When you’re feeling stressed, you may start feeling moody. You may also have less motivation to do the healthy weight loss activities that you really want to do.

If you’re down in the dumps and not motivated to prepare healthy meals or snacks, or get some exercise, then you’re less likely to do those things and we all know how important they are for weight loss.

6 – Negatively Affects Sleep

Cortisol is part of your natural sleep-wake cycle. Under normal (non-stressed) conditions, cortisol levels would increase before waking, and slowly drop during the day.

And this makes sense, because we know that it helps increase mental clarity as well as blood sugar to fuel your muscles. And we need mental clarity and to move our muscles, especially when we are awake.

But we also need this effect to “wear off” by the end of the day so we can start getting tired and relaxed enough to get a good night’s sleep. In other words, in the evenings, we want to start more resting and digesting.

Getting enough sleep is probably a more common reason why people don’t reach weight loss goals than most people think. Science is showing the links between not getting enough quality sleep and obesity.

Now that we’ve gone through six major reasons how stress hormones keep you from your weight loss goals, let’s talk about what the heck you can do about it.

STRESS-REDUCING TIPS

I’d love to help you manage your stress better so that you can meet your weight loss goals. There are really two main strategies to go about reducing your stress.

First off, you can reduce the amount of stress put on you by re-balancing some demands. Try:

  • Saying “no” more;
  • Ask for help or support;
  • Delegating to someone else;
  • Re-negotiating deadlines that seem unreasonable;
  • When working, focus on just one thing at a time (don’t multi-task).

Secondly, since you can’t (and maybe don’t want to) completely remove stress from you life, you want to learn to deal with it better. You can improve your personal stress tolerance by trying to:

  • Have some fun and laugh;
  • Make time for people (and pets) you love;
  • Get more, better-quality sleep;
  • Be mindful and live more “in the moment”;
  • Have one or two cups of green tea (which has been shown to lower stress levels);
  • Do light exercise most days per week (e.g. yoga, walking swimming, or tai chi);
  • Go for a walk outside;
  • Spend more time in nature;
  • Eat a nutrient-rich diet;
  • Meditate or deep breathing;
  • Relax every evening (e.g. have a bath or read a book);
  • Listen to soothing music;
  • Do a “brain dump” every night before bed where you just make notes of things you’re keeping track of in your head so you can relax more;
  • Treat yourself to a massage, nice meal, or pedicure.

References:

Hewagalamulage SD., Lee TK., Clarke IJ. & Henry BA. Stress, cortisol, and obesity: a role for cortisol responsiveness in identifying individuals prone to obesity. Domest Anim Endocrinol. 2016;56 Suppl:S112-20. doi: 10.1016/j.domaniend.2016.03.004.  http://www.domesticanimalendo.com/article/S0739-7240(16)30034-0/abstract

Incollingo Rodriguez AC, Epel ES, White ML, Standen EC, Seckl JR & Tomiyama AJ. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation and cortisol activity in obesity: A systematic review. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015 Dec;62:301-18. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.08.014.  http://www.psyneuen-journal.com/article/S0306-4530(15)00887-2/abstract

Kolbe, I., Dumbell, R. & Oster, H. (2015). Circadian Clocks and the Interaction between Stress Axis and Adipose Function. Int J Endocrinol. 2015:693204. doi: 10.1155/2015/693204. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4426660/

Lucassen EA, Cizza G. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, Obesity, and Chronic Stress Exposure: Sleep and the HPA Axis in Obesity. Curr Obes Rep. 2012 Dec;1(4):208-215.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3498460/?report=reader

Michopoulos V. Stress-induced alterations in estradiol sensitivity increase risk for obesity in women. Physiol Behav. 2016;166:56-64. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.05.016.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27182047

Pasquali R, Vicennati V, Cacciari M & Pagotto U. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity in obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Annual NY Academic Science, 1083, 2006;111–128. doi: 10.1196/annals.1367.009 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1196/annals.1367.009/pdf

Schorr M, Lawson EA, Dichtel LE, Klibanski A, Miller KK. Cortisol Measures Across the Weight Spectrum. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Sep;100(9):3313-21. doi: 10.1210/JC.2015-2078.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4570173/

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