In short, yes. Stress makes you fat.
Why? Well, that’s where it gets a little more complicated.
Your body is an amazing wonderland of hormones that need balance and stability. When one of these hormones is out of whack, then we see other areas of our health impacted.
First, we need to look at how we are biologically designed to deal with stress. You’re probably already familiar with the fight or flight response.
Fight or flight?
Cortisol is a stress hormone, like adrenaline, that is produced by the tiny but powerful adrenal glands, that sit above the kidneys. These hormones are part of our fight or flight response and integral to our survival.
Back in our hunter-gatherer days the body needed to react quickly when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger. The body is biologically primed to release hormones based on the apparent threat or stress.
Today, we don’t have those same threats, but we do still have the same stress response. The process in the body goes a little like this:
→ we see a sabre-toothed tiger (threat)
→ we initiate our fight or flight mechanism
→ adrenalin kicks in
→ our heart beats faster and pushes blood supply to the heart, muscles and vital organs, breathing becomes more rapid and glucose is released into the body to supply the muscles
→ adrenaline subsides and cortisol takes over to keep the foot on the accelerator, so to speak
→ once the threat is gone, the parasympathetic system steps in and puts the brakes on.
Adrenalin initially kicks the body into action, then cortisol takes over. Once we are well clear of the danger, cortisol and other stress hormones should also subside and return to normal levels. You will then enter back into the ‘rest and digest’ phase where you should feel calm and safe.
The problem we have today is we see many everyday events as threats, setting off this stress response far too frequently. Things like work meetings, traffic jams, worrying about our children, financial stress and the list goes on. This constant activation of the stress response takes its toll on the body.
What should be a response to acute stress has turned into an ongoing response to chronic stress.
The story of cortisol
What’s the link with cortisol and weight gain? Cortisol has had a bad rap the last few years but it’s actually very useful when it’s kept in check.
Cortisol plays a bigger role than just regulating your body’s stress response. It also:
- suppresses inflammation
- helps control your metabolism
- regulates blood pressure and blood sugar
- helps control your sleep-wake cycle
- helps regulate the immune system.
Just from looking at that list of great things cortisol does in the body, I can easily see that if it’s out of balance, then some of those areas are going to go a little haywire.
When we don’t produce enough cortisol we experience:
- muscle fatigue
- chronic fatigue
- abdominal pain
- nausea and vomiting
- weight loss.
When we produce too much cortisol we experience:
- depression and anxiety
- cardiovascular disease
- poor memory
- learning difficulties
- terrible sleep
- irregular menstrual periods
- facial hair growth
- thin skin
- impaired immunity
- weight gain.
Quiz time! When we are stressed, do we produce more or less cortisol?
That’s right, you guessed it! We produce more cortisol and it hangs around like a bad smell.
Take another look at that list. The last dot point is what you came here for, but take a look at all the other points and tell me how many you regularly experience. I’m going to wager it’s a lot. Especially if you’re a stressed mum.
How is stress making you fat?
Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the question – does stress make you fat?
As I mentioned above, we release glucose into the bloodstream as part of the initial fight or flight response. This is one way the body helps provide energy to get you to run fast.
Now, in the modern day, we don’t need to run fast. In fact, we tend to stay very still. Some of that extra blood glucose gets sent to the liver for storage and the rest gets stored in our fat, namely visceral fat, a.k.a belly fat – the worst kind.
What’s even worse is that cortisol also makes us hungry, particularly for sugary and fatty foods. Our body seeks replenishment after all that stress and non-existent running.
How do you stop stress making you fat?
It’s hard to stop stress. In fact, it’s basically impossible. We’re faced with stress every day, there’s no way around that. What we can control is how we deal with stress and we can help our body mitigate the negative effects of stress.
Initiate the relaxation response
Some ways include deep abdominal breathing, focusing on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), repeating affirmations, visualisating calming or tranquil scenes, yoga and tai chi.
Get some daily exercise
I will always promote exercise and movement as a great stress reliever and for mental health. Exercise helps release endorphins which make you feel good, you will also be forced to take deep abdominal breaths, which trigger the relaxation response.
Take B vitamins
B-complex vitamins help our bodies adapt to stress as they support our nervous system. Vitamin B5 helps regulate the adrenal gland (remember the one that makes our stress hormones), B6 regulates stress and feel good hormones like noradrenaline and serotonin, and B12 helps with memory and concentration. B vitamins also boost your overall energy.
I really love magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is really common, because stress makes us churn through our stores.
Magnesium status is highly associated with stress. We end up in a vicious cycle of low magnesium increasing our stress response and stress burning through the magnesium we have.
Focus on diet
Yeah, yeah this one is tricky. Your body is telling you to eat the sugary and fatty foods when you’re stressed so you might need to work a little harder here and try your best to avoid them.
Instead eat nature’s candy – fruit. Choose high protein foods like Greek yoghurt, nuts and seeds, turkey, even a cacao protein smoothie as a replacement. These foods contain magnesium and B-vitamins, amongst other nutrients, to further help relieve stress.
Go easy on caffeine
This is hard for me to write as my morning coffee is my favourite part of the day. But, too much caffeine is further exacerbating your stress. Unfortunately for coffee lovers, it increases your cortisol levels further and here we are trying to get those cortisol levels down.
Perhaps try a coffee alternative, like chai tea, dandelion root or dare I say, decaf coffee (gasp!). At least keep your intake at one standard cup a day and savour that cup like your life depends on it.
Easier said than done, right? When you’re stressed it’s hard to sleep and lack of sleep increases cortisol and stress levels. This is where some of those relaxation exercises can come in handy. Actively work at winding down at the end of the day – limit screen time before bed, drink a herbal tea, take magnesium, meditate, do some calming yoga, listen to calming music…take your pick.
Herbs, herbs and more herbs
Rhodiola, Withania, Lemon balm, Kava and St. John’s wort are my favourite herbs for stress. However, there’s a bucketload of amazing herbs to help your body adapt to stress. I suggest you talk to me about the best herbs for your individual needs.
Never forget the power of your mind. Scientists found mindfulness can influence stress pathways in the brain. It can alter your brain structures and influence your regulation of emotion. People who practice gratitude each day are happier and calmer.
Sometimes we just need to outsource. Find someone to put all of this together for you…like me 😉
While it is crystal clear that stress makes you fat, you can’t place all the blame on stress. If you are not taking care of yourself by following a nutritious diet, including regular movement into your day and working on your mindset, then you’re not going to be the happy and healthy person you want to be,
Now you have more understanding of how stress can affect your overall health, then it’s time to take action.