Most people these days are aware of the connection between stress and an overwhelming number of health problems, including: coronary heart disease, depression or anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, sexual health problems, autoimmune disorders, chronic back pain, diabetes, decreased bone density and cancer. However, there is not enough emphasis out there on just how strong the link between stress and weight gain is.
The demands and stress that the modern way of living puts on our bodies greatly exceeds what our bodies were “originally designed” to cope with. The modern lifestyles rarely require the evolutionary fight-or-flight response to stress (running away from big scary animals), which means that our bodies become confused. Faced with a stressful event (a deadline or a traffic jam), the brain still responds to stress as originally programmed, stimulating endocrine glands to release hormones. Unfortunately, because we no longer react to that stress with increased levels of physical activity (fighting or running away), our hormonal balance becomes completely disrupted.
You may not consider yourself chronically stressed but if even a few of the following apply to you, the chances are you are more stressed than you realize:
• always in a hurry
• feeling out of control or under pressure (job, finances, relationship, food, drink, etc)
• never enough hours in the day to do the things you need to do
• frequently feeling fatigued, tired or exhausted
• suffering from depression or anxiety
• difficulties concentrating, memory lapses
• sleep disturbances, not getting enough sleep
• low sexual drive and other sexual issues
• abdominal weight gain
• lacking direction in life – not sure where you are going or what you want to do
• experiencing dizziness or general feeling of “being unwell”
• general aches and pains
• muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
• indigestion or acid reflux symptoms
The two primary hormones released in the time of stress are adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is what gives us the “let’s spring into action” feeling, while cortisol is responsible for the body’s utilization of fuel sources. Cortisol is a very important hormone, without which we could not deal with everyday stressful situations. Some positive effects of cortisol in those circumstances include: producing a quick burst of energy for survival reasons (through regulating glucose, protein, and fatty acids metabolism), increased immunity, heightened memory, decreased sensitivity to pain and maintenance of homeostasis in the body.
Cortisol levels typically fluctuate in a fairly rhythmic fashion throughout the day, with the highest levels present in the morning and the lowest present at night. While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it is important to allow the body to return to normal following a stressful event (activating the body’s relaxation response). Unfortunately, as discussed above, in our current stress-promoting culture the stress response is activated so frequently that the body does not always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress. Chronic stress, restrained eating (dieting) and sleep deprivation are the three main factors contributing to increased cortisol production.
Over a period time, not only do elevated cortisol levels lead to a variety of health problems but they also tend to effectively sabotage any efforts to lose weight. During periods of chronic stress, cortisol increase is accompanied by a rise in insulin concentrations sending a powerful signal to fat cells to store as much fat as possible. That hormonal combination also signals fat cells to hold on to their fat content reducing the body’s ability to use fat for energy. Cortisol also affects the way the body processes insulin, making muscle and fat cells resistant to it (shortcut to diabetes). The unfortunate hormonal milieu during times of chronic stress results in: increased appetite and food cravings (particularly for calorie-dense sweets and salty snacks), increased body fat and decreased muscle mass. And that sadly equals weight gain. Cortisol-induced demand for blood sugar due to chronic stress causes us to feel hungry and encourages us to eat more, despite our best intentions not to. This can be further exacerbated by lack of physical activity, insufficient sleep and/or caffeine consumption.
At this point some of you might say that you know people who are chronically stressed and yet they are not overweight. Equally, there are some chilled out people out there who struggle with managing their weight. You are right. And there is a good reason for this phenomenon. I wish it could be as simple as just controlling your blood cortisol levels (although many people struggle with that anyway), but unfortunately there is more to it. In fact, blood levels of cortisol (systemic cortisol) are only one part of the story. What we also need to be aware of is that there is an enzyme stored within our fat cells called 11-beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase-1 (HSD), which causes inactive cortisol (cortisol that has served its function and has been deactivated by the body) to become “reactivated” within our fat cells. What this means is that you could be really good at managing your stress levels and yet the relatively low amount of cortisol in your bloodstream can still be exaggerated by HSD activity in your fat cells, resulting in high cortisol concentration and consequently more fat storage. This effect is particularly pronounced in abdominal fat cells as they are highly sensitive to the fat-storing action of cortisol. Interestingly, it has been shown that extreme dieting (very low calorie diet of eight hundred calories per day) significantly increases systemic cortisol levels, as well as HSD activity within fat cells.
HSD activity is genetically determined but luckily there are various natural substances out there that can control HSD activity. Citrus-derived flavonoids (Polymethoxylated flavones or PMFs) have been found particularly effective in reducing HSD activity, in addition to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-reducing properties. Other effective inhibitors of HSD activity are flavonoids found in apples and onions (quercetin), grapefruit (naringenin) and soybeans (genistein and daidzein). The activity of HSD can be also optimized with hypnotherapy.
However, the story continues as unfortunately chronic stress leading to cortisol overexposure tends to also reduce testosterone levels. This is more bad news for anyone trying to lose weight as testosterone serves many important functions in both men and women, including:
• increased lean body mass and muscle strength
• reduced fat mass
• improved mood
• increased mental and physical energy levels
• better sleep quality
• improved sex drive and performance
• reduced cholesterol levels
Women produce only about one-tenth the amount of testosterone compared to men therefore any stress-induced drop in testosterone would be expected to affect women as much as men, or possibly more. So basically, for women who want to stay lean, strong, fit and healthy maintaining normal testosterone levels is as important as it is for men. Unfortunately, most people experience a 10 percent decrease in testosterone per decade after the age of twenty or thirty, which is frequently observed as middle-age spread. Fortunately, there is a solution. You may have guessed it. It is exercise. Any form of physical activity helps boost testosterone levels, whether it is cardiovascular or resistance training (like sexual activity, by the way). And of course, apart from many other benefits of exercise, you get an added bonus of reduced cortisol levels. This is great news because it is the right balance between the two hormones that is even more important than the absolute concentrations of either cortisol or testosterone.
So in summary, when we attempt to lose weight our bodies do their best to counteract our efforts by going into the “fat preservation mode”. This is achieved by higher cortisol and lower testosterone concentrations, reduction in muscle mass and metabolic rate. Calorie restriction has been repeatedly shown to result in slower metabolism. Losing weight under these circumstances becomes a real struggle and when the weight finally shifts it tends to come back relatively quickly and often people end up worse off than before they started dieting!
So what to do? Here it is. The same old list of recommendations! So it seems no matter what angle we approach it from, in the end we are always back to these:
• Manage your stress as effectively as possible. Become master of planning, develop your portfolio of relaxation techniques, learn to shrug off things that are not all that important (in other words, focus on a bigger picture), and if you have a stressful moment, counteract it with some relaxation or exercise.
• Eat a well-balanced diet with loads of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain foods, lean meat / poultry / fish and essential fats (fad diets just lead to more weight issues).
• Cut down on alcohol, salt, coffee (decaffeinated coffee has also been shown to increase cortisol levels) and other foods or beverages containing caffeine, as well as dietary supplements containing stimulants (such as guarana).
• Do some physical activity most days (aerobic exercise, resistance training, yoga, etc.)
• Get adequate amount of sleep (6-8 hours per night).
• Stay hydrated to avoid increasing your cortisol levels (many people are chronically dehydrated and not even aware of it), and “no”: just tea or coffee is not sufficient.
• Engage in sexual activity as sex has been shown to boost testosterone levels.
• During more stressful times you may want to supplement your nutrition with a good quality multi-vitamin and mineral formula (the most important nutrients to counteract stress include: B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, zinc, chromium.
• You may also want to take HSD-controlling supplements discussed above (PMFs) and/or herbal extracts (e.g. rhodiola or St. John’s wort)
Talbott, S (2007) The Cortisol Connection. Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health – And What You Can Do About It. 2nd Ed, Hunter House, Alameda, CA.
Teitelbaum, J (2003) How stress can make you gain weight. Total Health, vol. 25, no.5.
Beccuti, G, Pannain, S (2011) Sleep and obesity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, Jul;14(4):402-12.
Dabbs, JM, Mohammed, S (1992) Male and female salivary testosterone concentrations before and after sexual activity. Physiology Behav, Jul 52(1):195-197.
©Copyright 2012 by Hypnotherapy in Chippenham All Rights Reserved.
John and Linda Ballis
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