Stress is an inevitable part of life that appears in many forms. We are faced with common stressors on a daily basis — a poor night's sleep, traffic, a work deadline, emotional triggers and even exercise. The body is equipped to manage some stress, particularly over a short period of time, but when stress persists over longer periods, it can lead to a number of health issues.
Hormones play a key role in our ability to reach and maintain a healthy body weight. Ongoing stress can disrupt our optimal hormone balance, which, in turn, can affect our ability to lose weight through dyregulated blood sugar levels and impaired hormone signalling. Over time, this chain reaction can even lead to accumulated body fat stores, especially around the midsection. Let's take a look at the stress and body fat connection and what you can do to support your body and manage stress.
It is important to understand that while the body is designed to deal with stress, it can't distinguish between the type of stressor. Real stress, like running from danger, creates the same response as being rushed in the morning or losing your keys. Since daily life is full of small, short-term stressors -- managing how we respond to them is essential to maintain a healthy hormone response that doesn't stay activated unnecessarily.
Stress triggers a series of automatic reactions known as the "fight-or-flight" response. When stress is perceived, the brain triggers a series of signals and the release of stress hormones norepinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol. This adrenalin rush increases heart and breathing rates, blood pressure and glucose (sugar) is also released into the blood as the immediate energy source for the body to use to respond to stress. When blood sugar levels rise, the hormone insulin is also released to shuttle glucose into the cells.
The problem arises with consistently elevated levels of glucose and cortisol, which inhibit the body's ability to tap into body fat for energy, which is how persistent stress over time can lead to weight gain. High levels of cortisol will also mobilize fats from storage sites and move them to the belly, which has more insulin receptor sites and this cycle can lead to accumulated body fat.
Aside from playing a main role in the stress response, cortisol helps to regulate blood sugar and metabolism, assists in the inflammatory response and supports memory. But it is its role as a blood sugar regulator that is most important in understanding weight gain and the relationship between stress and body fat.
Over time, high levels of stress (cortisol) combined with high levels of glucose put the body into survival mode, slowing down the metabolic rate. In this state the body doesn't burn as many calories which can then lead to weight gain. Elevated levels of cortisol can also slow or stop the release of insulin, when this happens, more sugar remains in the blood and when the body doesn't use it for energy to respond to real danger, the excess is stored as fat. Cortisol overproduction may also lead to stress-induced eating, which can contribute to weight gain.
Managing stress is key to promoting optimal hormone balance and goes a long way to facilitate a weight loss goal or maintain a healthy body weight. We may not be able to avoid stress, but managing how we respond to it is key and supportive lifestyle factors can also help. Eating whole food meals that support balanced levels of blood sugar will avoid unnecessary spikes and falls that can lead to increased hunger and cravings. Incorporating regular exercise, with lower intensity activities like walking or time in nature, restorative practices including yoga and tai chi, breathwork, meditation and journal writing all promote calm and counterbalance the heightened stress response switching from fight-or-flight into rest-and-digest - the crucial relaxed and restorative state.
If you find yourself exposed to higher levels of stress, supportive supplementation can also help to balance cortisol levels and promote hormone balance.