Are your Stress Levels Causing Your Weight Issues?
In today’s world, especially after the year that 2020 was, stress seems to be pretty high for the majority of individuals, and on a chronic, regular basis. Changes in work, changes in schedule, new routines, kids are home, kids are not home, trauma, emotional fatigue, grief, illness, and the list goes on. While science isn’t exactly definitive on causal connections between stress and weight gain, it can definitely be a contributing factor in your ability to lose weight.
Cortisol is the hormone that is linked to our stress response. Commonly known as our fight or flight response. Think about this though – how often are we in fight or flight situations? But can your cortisol and stress still be elevated, in non-dangerous scenarios? Absolutely.
Here I’ll explain the role of cortisol and what it actually does in our body, how it might relate to our weight, and most importantly – what you can do to decrease your cortisol and the stress you feel.
What is cortisol, and what does it do for us?
Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a steroid hormone, that gets released from our adrenal glands when our sympathetic nervous system responds to danger. That fight or flight type scenario, or perceived threat (this is important – perceived threat). Adrenaline also gets released along with cortisol so the combined effect of these two hormones in response to a stressor is increased glucose into your bloodstream and increased heart rate to get that energy to your muscles in order to run, or fight off the danger, and to your brain so you can think quickly.
There are also things that get down regulated, or slowed down when cortisol and adrenaline levels are high. Your digestive system slows down because that’s not going to help you fight or run, and it also changes your immune responses, reproductive processes, and emotions since they aren’t exactly essential in emergency situations.
Insert the functional medicine thought process here – To me this says if this stress response were activated chronically, even at low levels, the health risks and concerns I am going to think about are, high blood sugar and heart rate (possibly high blood pressure), poor bowel functioning which can cause immune system suppression/dysfunction, changes in mental health, and the possibility of reproductive issues going on as well. All systems are connected, remember? But don’t let this scare you too much, this isn’t your fate, nor is it automatically your reality, but these are possibilities to consider for each individual.
How can these natural stress responses affect my weight?
As mentioned above, cortisol increases your blood sugar. So if your stress response is activated chronically, even at low levels, your blood sugar remains higher than necessary, increasing your risk of developing insulin sensitivity and metabolic dysfunction. What is that linked to? Weight gain, Diabetes, heart disease, PCOS, etc. Again, this is not definitively your fate, but these connections are extremely important to take note of especially if some of these health concerns are real for you.
Another component to consider in how stress relates to weight loss struggles is, what is your response to stress? Most likely comfort…comfort food! You want relief from the stress you feel, and something instant (insert your favorite treats here). It also becomes harder to moderate when it comes to emotional eating, so add that to feeling stressed A LOT of the time – it can definitely hinder your weight loss progress, and instead give you that yo-yo pattern you despise being caught in.
In some of our weight loss patients here at STRONGLIFE, we have seen their visceral fat increase (this is dangerous abdominal fat), even though they have stayed right on point with their ketogenic plan. Guess what we asked about – their stress levels. Guess what their homework was if they were experiencing a lot of stress- stress management. What happened the week after – their weight loss continued. This isn’t going to be the case for every single person, but is a very real component we consider!
What can I do to stop my chronic stress?
Since your cortisol is triggered by your sympathetic nervous system, what needs to happen is minimize what is instigating that pathway, and start to initiate your parasympathetic nervous system. This is your rest and digest system! Why? Because it upregulates everything that the sympathetic nervous system down regulates – digestion becomes better, your heart rate decreases, blood pressure drops, and allows your metabolism to function more optimally.
Your actions items are essentially in the nickname – rest and digest. Take time to relax, make sure you’re nourishing yourself well, eating enough and not forgetting to eat. Many common instigators of low grade chronic stress come from things such as not enough sleep, relying on caffeine too much, eating high calorie low nutrient foods, work stressors, emotional stressors, not making yourself a priority, depression, anxiety. Truthfully the list really can go on and on.
Take a moment to think about your day to day life. Do any of those resonate with you? Are you constantly “on the go”? Does constantly being busy almost feel like a badge of honor you need to keep up with? It might be time to rethink what this could be doing to your health, and weight loss struggles!
To wrap up this topic for today, here are ideas for you to think about, and implement into your own life, to decrease those stressors and improve your health:
- Prioritize and organize – once a week, look at your schedule for the next 7 days and create a list of realistic expectations for what you HAVE to do, and at least 1 thing that you WANT to do for just YOU. Putting it down on paper, or in your Google calendar, or some sort of note can take a lot of pressure off of having to pack it away in your brain, then hopefully remember and not feel like everything is last minute.
- Deep Breathing – seems trivial, but taking slow, deep, belly breaths (not raising your chest up, but filling your belly up), is a great practice for activating your parasympathetic nervous system, and calming your whole body and mind down. Dr. Andrew Weil, a Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioner has a few different practices to try and can find the instructions here 3 Breathing Exercises and Techniques.
- Form a self-care routine – get back to your childish roots, have fun, be giddy, PLAY! Maybe even make something that is out of the ordinary, into a new tradition or ritual. Get back to doing puzzles, stretching for 5 minutes in the sunshine, playing kickball, or blowing bubbles! Whatever you find joy in, find ways to bring that back into your life. Life is meant to be LIVED, not stressed about chronically.
At STRONGLIFE Weight Loss in Lithia, FL, we can help you address any underlying issues, whether you realize they’re there or not, and improve your overall health
“I hope that you found these tips as valuable as my patients have over the years. If you’re interested in a patient-centered process that takes into account all aspects that affect your health, then I would encourage to visit our website at www.stronglifeweightloss.com to see how we help our patients improve their health and to find if you are a good candidate for our weight loss.” – Dr. Scott