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Stress and Weight Gain

Stress and Weight Gain


Stress stimulates cravings for sweet, calorie dense foods and salty, high carbohydrate snacks. Whether eating to fill an emotional need or grabbing fast food, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one.

Weight gain when under stress is partly due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances. The combination of high cortisol, low DHEA and low growth hormone production causes the body to store fat, lose muscle and slow the metabolic rate.

Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a hormone that comes from the adrenal gland. It is also made in the brain. DHEA leads to the production of androgens and estrogens (male and female sex hormones). DHEA levels in the body begin to decrease after age 30. Levels decrease more quickly in women. Lower DHEA levels are found in people with hormonal disorders, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, depression, diabetes, inflammation, immune disorders, and osteoporosis. Evidence suggests that DHEA may help treat depression, obesity, and osteoporosis.

The pituitary gland, a small gland at the base of the brain, is part of the body’s stress response system. The pituitary gland controls the secretion of the stress hormone “cortisol” by the adrenal gland during stressful life moments as well as physical stress from exercising.

The healthy adrenal gland secretes cortisol into the bloodstream in a cyclical pattern. Normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight.

Cortisol is important for

  • the maintenance of blood pressure,
  • the provision of energy for the body,
  • stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and
  • stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels.
Ever wonder why we get the urge to eat when we feel stressed out?

Cortisol’s job is to get the body plenty of fuel to deal with any emergency. The liver first responds to cortisol’s signal by pumping out glucose to provide energy in case we need to use our muscles to escape danger. Next, our muscles begin to convert themselves to amino acids and glucose for additional source of energy. If we aren’t moving a lot to use up all this increased blood sugar, our pancreas gets the signal to decrease the resulting high blood sugar; it produces insulin that surges into action to activate our cells to take in blood sugar. As a result, our blood sugar plummets, and we lose control of our appetite.

Stress makes us burn fewer calories and cortisol actually reduces the body’s ability to release fat from our fat stores to use for energy. Instead, we become sugar burners and fat storers.

Chronic long-term exposure to stress hormones disrupts the body’s metabolism, causing elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and increased body fat levels. As cortisol signals for more energy, we lose muscle mass as our muscle tissue transforms into glucose and then insulin converts it into fat. Now we have less muscle to burn up energy, and more fat sitting around our belly!

The body stores fat conveniently around the abdomen close to major organs for easy conversion into available energy for emergencies. With long term elevated cortisol levels, the body stays constantly in a state of emergency, thus our metabolism slows down due to reduced muscle mass, the tissue which burns up the most calories while we’re at rest.

Furthermore, chronically high cortisol makes our body both insulin resistant and leptin resistant. Leptin is the hormone that tells our body we’ve eaten enough and don’t need to store any more fat. Unfortunately, when we are bombarded by stress signals from cortisol, our cells don’t respond like they should to the messages from insulin and leptin.

stress cortisol

Stress hormones cause increased body fat in the abdominal region,
exactly where we don’t need or want it.

Chronic stress leads the body to ignore the function of insulin. Insulin resistance develops when the cells fail to respond to insulin’s message to take in glucose from the blood stream.

It is thought that elevated blood sugar due to stress and diet contributes to the development of insulin resistance.

When insulin fails to unlock our cells, the appetite is increased while the body’s ability to burn fat is decreased. We’re actually experiencing a blood sugar low that is the result of a cascade of hormones stimulated by the elevated stress hormone, cortisol. This syndrome is part of the modern problem of rising rates of obesity and diabetes.


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