August 11, 2021

Cortisol, Stress, And Weight

Dr Michele Johnson

Stress can harm your health, impacting your ability to maintain a healthy body weight. If you are trying to lose weight, it can prevent you from doing so. Whether it is due to higher levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), unhealthy stress-related behavior, or a combination of these two, there is a distinct link between weight gain and stress.  

Cortisol and the Stress Link

Research has proved that higher cortisol levels in the body can result in weight gain. When you feel stressed, your adrenal glands automatically release cortisol and adrenaline. In turn, this effect releases glucose into your bloodstream. The body does this to give you the energy required to escape from risky situations.

This reaction is also referred to as the fight or flight response. Once the threat subsides, the adrenaline levels are reduced, and the spike in your blood sugar will drop. At this point, cortisol quickly kicks in to replenish your body's energy supply. 

How Does Cortisol Result In Weight Gain?

Because sugar gives your body a quick energy fix that it thinks it requires, it's often one of the first things that you reach for whenever you are stressed. The disadvantage to consuming large amounts of sugar is that your body stores it, especially when stressed. The energy mainly gets stored as abdominal fat, which can be incredibly difficult to get rid of. 

This results in a vicious cycle-whenever you are stressed, your body releases cortisol, you gain weight, and you crave more sugar. When you consume large amounts of sugar, you can gain more weight.  

Metabolism and Cortisol

Even when you don't consume high fat and sugar content foods, cortisol decelerates your metabolism, and your body weight stagnates. 

Unhealthy Habits that are a Fallout of Stress

Apart from the hormonal changes that stress can cause, it can also drive you to engage in various unhealthy behaviors, which result in weight gain. Some of these behaviors include:

  • Emotional Eating - Higher cortisol levels result in unhealthy food cravings. When you have excess nervous energy, it causes you to eat much more than you typically would. You will end up reaching for second helpings or snacks throughout the day as it gives you some relief from the stress you are feeling. However, it also becomes more challenging for you to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eating Fast Foods - When you feel stressed and do not plan your meals, you tend to eat anything easily accessible and readily available, which may not always be the healthiest option. You are also more likely to pick up meals from a fast-food drive-thru rather than taking the effort and time to cook a healthy meal for yourself.
  • Less Exercise - If you lead a very hectic life, your schedule can be pretty demanding. It also means that you put exercise and workouts on the back burner. This is quite common with people that have daily long commutes and spend excessive hours behind desks peering over their computers. 
  • Inadequate Sleep - When you are stressed, it affects your sleep pattern, and sleep deprivation contributes to a dip in your metabolism. If you are overtired, it reduces your willpower, which again causes you to reach for unhealthy foods.
  • Skipping meals - When you deal with many different things all at once, eating healthy becomes less important. You may skip breakfast because you are in a rush or may not have your lunch because you have too many things to deal with at that time.
  • Breaking the Stress and Weight-Gain Cycle
  • When you are stressed, maintaining a workout or meal schedule can seem challenging. However, if you persist, plan your meals, and exercise at least a few times each week, you will be able to combat stress and the related weight changes better. Breaking the vicious cycle is the only way to get your health back on track. Some simple things to do, include: 
  • Incorporate some form of exercise into your schedule
  • Eat healthy, home cooked meals
  • Practice mindful eating
  • Maintain a food journal
  • Stay hydrated 

Make health a priority and manage your time better, so you aren't stressed with running around trying to wrap up everything on your to-do list. Incorporate stress-relief activities into your daily schedule. Reading a book, unwinding at the end of a busy day or week, practicing yoga, or even going out for a walk can help reduce stress and the cortisol levels in your body.

Focus on these things today, and slowly you find that it becomes easier to maintain a healthy weight. As mentioned earlier, cortisol, stress, and weight gain are all part of a vicious circle. When you break one of the links, you will be able to step out of that circle and get your health back on track.

You will also be less inclined to reach for unhealthy foods and will see your energy levels increasing. Stress can lead to long-term health issues, and addressing it sooner than later is crucial. 

For tips on shifting to a healthier lifestyle, feel free to contact Michele Johnson MD, through this online form. my team and i are happy to answer questions about our program. 

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