Worrying about a project at work.
Over exercising, or restricting calories too low.
Fear that your partner is going to leave you or your friends/family are gossiping about you behind your back.
We all know the stresses we have in our lives, but do you know how they are affecting your weight?
Stress not only causes mental and emotional responses such as moodiness, lack of energy, lack of sex drive, lack of motivation, but it also causes physiological reactions in our body that lead to weight gain!
So how does it all work?
Stress, whether real or perceived releases a ‘stress hormone’ into our blood called Cortisol. Cortisol in high chronic doses is not good, and does a lot of damage to various physiological pathways.
First of all the stress hormone Cortisol is catabolic (meaning it is a hormone that breaks down tissues as opposed to building it up). Stress causes catabolism of our muscle! Cortisol breaks down our lean mass (muscle) in an effort to supply a greater quantity of glucose to our blood. Releasing glucose into our blood is one way that our body tries to cope with stress. Technically we inherited this ability for a reason. We want our body to release glucose into our blood because say for example you were being chased by a lion you would want lots of readily available energy to help you run away really quick. The problem is we aren’t running from animals very often anymore. So nowadays we are stressed out for other reasons, but our body still reacts in the same way, by providing unnecessary glucose into the blood stream. Not only does Cortisol break down muscle for this purpose, but it also prevents muscle building (protein synthesis). The stressed out body wants to preserve the building blocks of protein to make glucose rather than muscle. Technically we want the most muscle we can get. Muscle is like the metabolic engine of the body. One pound of muscle burns up to 35 more calories per day then other tissue, for example fat. All of this loss of muscle, and loss of muscle production, combined with a lowering of some very important hormones that also happens when we are stressed out (testosterone, DHEA, growth hormone, IGF-1 and TSH) results in a drop in our basal metabolic rate. So as a result of stress and the hormone cortisol we in fact lower the amount of calories that our body naturally burns in a day to keep us alive, as well as burn up our muscle, and prevent the building of muscle. So technically if your body is stressed out you are making it extra hard for yourself to burn calories to keep weight off.
Next, we have the challenge of blood sugar. As I said before stress causes an increase in blood sugar (for reasons associated with needing extra sugar to flee the scene that is stressing you out). With a high level of glucose circulating in the blood we experience what is called a decrease in insulin sensitivity. Basically what this means is that when we are chronically stressed out our cells become less efficient at storing glucose, and yet our body continues to pump out insulin to over compensate (our cells want the glucose, and even though there is a lot in the blood it isn’t getting into the cells, and insulin is overcompensating trying to make that happen..). What all of this means is that our Pancreas starts to produce way more insulin then we would normally need. High insulin levels are associated with a decrease of the utilization of fat as fuel, aka leading to less fat used and more fat accumulated on the body. Stress= lots of blood sugar= insulin tries to compensate by producing more than needed= fat is no longer being used as a fuel source. People who have chronically over consumed non nutritious carbohydrates and processed foods their whole lives are also at risk of experiencing insulin resistance, and are going to have a really hard time burning fat. High blood sugar is also associated with an increase in appetite and carbohydrate cravings. To recap: High blood sugar from stress leads to feeling hungrier causing us to eat more, and poor insulin control leading to less fat utilized as fuel, leading to an increase in body fat.
The link of stress to Belly Fat
Cortisol is basically the decision maker as to which source of fuel (protein, carbs or fat) will be used based on the current condition of the person. As described in the previous paragraph, in stressful situations cortisol can send protein to be used as fuel. Ideally in a non stressed out environment Cortisol would decide to use our fat as fuel. What often happens in a stressed out person is the fat is not only NOT chosen as a source of fuel, but is in fact transported and stored in different areas of the body (deep abdominal fat). Not only does Cortisol fat in the belly, but it in fact grows belly fat cells into larger hungrier fat cells! These cells actually have a greater number of enzymes that contribute to further fat production. Fat in the abdomen area is considered the most dangerous fat because of it’s associate with high blood pressure, heart disease, and risk for Diabetes. Stress causes cortisol to not only NOT burn fat as fuel, but to send it deep into the abdomen where the cells grow larger, and more efficient at create even more fat cells!
Stress basically does the exact opposite in our body of what we want it to do. It prevents the building up of calorie burning protein. It stops using our body fat as a source of fuel throughout the day, leading to weight gain. It transports our fat to our abdomen. It decreases our insulin sensitivity, leaving dangerous amounts of glucose circulating in our blood. It causes us to be hungrier and have more cravings, so we eat more, so we gain weight. It’s important to get out of this vicious cycle!
On A side note:
Just as one example of a common stress in our society. Considering at any given time 50-60 % of our population considers themselves “on a diet”:
Sometimes we think we are doing the right thing by ‘going on a diet’, but in fact we can actually be setting ourselves up to gain weight! Dieting is more often than not considered stressful, restrictive, and unpleasant. As a result our body reacts the same way it would any other stressful event! Here we are trying to eat less and do what’s right for our body, but instead you end up gaining weight, and especially belly weight instead! Instead of dieting and stressing your body out, trying adding in the healthiest foods and lifestyle choices you can. Stop taking things away and restricting, but instead try eating more vegetables, walking more, getting more fibre in. Make ‘dieting’ a more pleasant healthy experience, and not one that will cause further stress to the body.
In the end: We want some stress and some cortisol. Good stress comes from waking up in the morning, exercise, consuming foods, and properly managed psychological stress. When stress gets out of control we experience weight gain, especially belly fat weight gain. This weight gain is dangerous, but also for many people feels unpleasant. Some things that are proven scientifically to help prevent abdominal belly fat and overall weight gain are:
- Aerobic activitiy (3-5 days week)
- Resistance training (lifting weights) (2-3 days week)
- Mindfulness activities (yoga, tai chi, counselling, meditation) ~ Daily.
- Timing your carbs to eat them in the morning and after workouts
- Avoid processed foods
- Learning to manage emotions and stressful events.
*There are other supplements you could take, but by starting with these things first you can get yourself on a good track to better control of cortisol in the body!
Don’t let stress hold you back from achieving the body weight you are aiming for! By following these steps you should begin to see your belly fat decrease over time.