Can stress make you fat?

Posted: 2013-10-22

Can stress make you fat?

Nowadays stress is all around us. This can be in the form of work, family, or even exercise. Everyone has an element of stress, even if we don’t feel like we are stressed. However, it is how we cope with it that is the issue. This can be one of the major issues preventing you from reaching your fat loss goal.

Our adrenal glands are the two small glands above our kidneys which produce our stress hormones. The main stress hormone we will be talking about in this article is cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to any stress (poor sleep, traffic jams, toxins, viruses, exercise, pollution etc). This is our get up and go hormone, we need it so we can jump out of bed in the morning, and so we feel tired at night (if you don’t feel like this, you are probably stressed!). It’s when we have a constant supply of stress, and we are producing a lot of cortisol, that this doesn't happen.

Our bodies are designed to cope with stress. When our ancestors were being chased by wolves, we would get a sudden release of adrenaline and cortisol from our adrenal glands. This would help us react fast and run to safety. This is acute stress and is perfectly healthy - if we need it. However, it is when this is happening 3-4 times a day, if not more, that it starts to be a problem. A modern day comparison could be driving to work and getting stuck in a traffic jam or your boss giving you an unreasonable job or deadline. The same amount of adrenaline and cortisol will be released, but instead of using it to run away, you are stuck in your car. This means these hormones are not being used so will recirculate around the body. If this is happening everyday, 7 days a week, for months if not years, this becomes chronic stress.
Chronic stress creates the fight or flight response. This means blood is taken from your organs (such as your digestive system) and it put into your muscles. This is so you can fight or run. If you are constantly in the fight and flight response, your vital organs will not be getting enough oxygen day in, day out, to function optimally. This is why stress can cause gastrointestinal upset, such as IBS.

So why is stress linked to fat gain? When your body is in the fight or flight response, you need the energy to respond. To give you this energy, your body elevates your blood sugar. This is useful if you need to fight the wolves, but not if you are stuck in the traffic jam! If this energy is used, a hormone called insulin is released. Insulin is needed to take the sugar out of your blood and to be used as energy, or stored as energy for later in the liver and muscles. If this energy isn't used, it will be stored as fat (normally around the belly because your body is trying to protect your vital organs). Stress also causes catabolism (muscle breakdown) to provide the amino acids for energy. This will lower metabolism, which will cause more fat gain as well.

So, to lose belly fat, you must first address your stress. If you don’t, you are going to have to work harder and harder….but remember, over exercising is a stress too, so this could make it worse and the fat won’t budge!
Some effects of chronic cortisol elevation-

• Increased insulin secretion
• Increased fat deposition
• Altered immune function
• Bone loss
• Muscles wasting
• Water retention
• Hypothyroidism
• Loss of sleep pattern
• Inflammation
• Gastrointestinal issues
• Memory loss
• Alteration in sex hormones

Ways to deal with stress-

• Address it! Find where it is coming from and either reduce it or get rid of it. It is hard to do, but do you want all of those conditions listed above?! Think of your long term health.

• Eat clean, whole foods. This is essential as you need the right nutrients to support the adrenal glands, body and mind. Poor nutrition will cause nutrient deficiencies, which will put extra stress on your body. Processed foods also contain a lot of toxins, which increases stress on the body, and depletes many nutrients.

• Learn to say no! Most of us are afraid to say no when we get asked to do things (work, social events etc). If you are feeling stressed and need some time you yourself, just say no. The more you say yes, the more they will ask!

• Drink liquorice tea. Liquorice is an adaptogenic herb. This means it will balance out the adrenals whether cortisol is too high or too low (it can be too low after a long period of chrionic stress, this is burn out!). It can also curb carb cravings. Try 4 cups of good quality liquorice tea a day. You can also take in supplement form, but make sure you see ha nutritional therapist to check it is right for you, and at what dosage.

• Eat magnesium rich foods- almonds, cashews, cocoa (not the stuff with milk and sugar in!!!), cod, kelp, eggs, seeds, brown rice. Also consider supplementing in magnesium either in tablet form, or by having a bath with magnesium flakes in. Magnesium is used in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body and it is depleted during stress.

• Exercise! This can help us deal with stress, just be careful not to over train!

• Sleep! 8 hours a night is optimal. Between 10pm-1am your body repairs itself, and between 1am-6am your mind recovers. Both of these are important.

• Try yoga and/or meditation. This helps us change from the fight and flight mode into rest and digest. It also helps to keep you calm, which means you will be able to deal with stresses better.
If you start with these points, you will hopefully feel more relaxed, and lose body fat!

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