Is Stress Making You Fat?

by lydia on May 16, 2014

Are you someone who is looking to shed a few pounds or more? Perhaps you have a muffin top you can’t get rid of no matter how clean you eat, or how much you exercise. There is often so much focus on the role of diet and exercise in weight loss that a key piece of the puzzle may not be getting addressed. Stress. Is stress making you fat or hold on to unwanted weight? Let’s discuss………….

Is Stress Making You Fat?

We all are familiar with ‘stress’, perhaps too familiar. Stress can be good in some ways, however excess or chronic stress is very harmful. Stress is not exclusive to challenges, pain or unpleasant events. We can experience a state of stress even when we are happy or experiencing pleasant things.

Essentially, stress is how our body reacts to changes in our environment and our psyches and can include:

  • Some common stressors can be biological in nature and caused by exposure to bacteria, viruses, molds and parasites.
  • They can also be chemical caused by exposure to toxins, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, heavy metals, household and industrial chemicals, fumes, dust, smoke, tobacco, and synthetic drugs.
  • We can also have environmental stressors, such as exposure to extreme cold or heat, noise, allergens, xenoestrogens, electromagnetic influences (microwaves, radio waves, electric high voltage lines), and radiation.
  • Another category of common stressors would be nutritional in nature. We could have stress from food allergies, processed/refined foods, alcohol, drugs,  and free radicals.
  • Additionally, we all experience physical stressors from time to time, such as; strenuous physical activity including exercise, surgery, trauma, starvation, lack of oxygen, intoxication, drug usage, sleep deprivation, severe illness, infection, pregnancy/nursing, and chronic overstimulation.
  • Let’s not forget possible psychological stressors and even spiritual ones. Depression, anger, fear, anxiety, worry, desire, grief, loss, mental illness, major change, mental trauma, and overwhelming responsibility. Psychological stress often comes along with physical stress as well.

Basically put, the dictionary definition of a stress or stressor is ” a pressure or tension exerted on another object; a demand on physical or mental energy; or a forcibly exerted influence, usually causing distress or strain.”

Stress is any factor, either positive or negative, or any event that requires a response or a change and threatens the body’s normal homeostasis. The reality is, stress is simply a fact of nature. We can’t ever fully escape it. We need to learn to adapt to some degree while we also work to avoid the stressors we are able to.

Cortisol: Our Key Stress Hormone

Cortisol is a hormone that kicks in during any stress response in the body, whether it is physical or psychological. It is also released in response to low blood sugar to bring it up quickly, as low blood sugar can be dangerous and is essentially a major stressor on the body.

When cortisol is secreted, it causes a breakdown of muscle protein, leading to the release of amino acids (the “building blocks” of protein) into the bloodstream. These amino acids then are used by the liver to synthesize glucose for energy, in a process called gluconeogenesis. This process raises the blood sugar level so the brain will have more glucose for energy. At the same time, the other tissues of the body decrease their use of glucose as fuel. Cortisol secretion also leads to the release of fatty acids for use by the muscles. Taken together, these processes that direct and replenish energy prepare the body to deal with stress and ensure that the brain receives adequate energy sources. Cortisol’s other important functions in the body are the regulation of blood pressure and cardiovascular function as well as helping the immune system respond to infection and inflammation. Cortisol levels in normal individuals are highest at around six to eight in the morning and are lowest around midnight.

Too much cortisol can suppress immune functions. Symptoms of elevated cortisol can include anxiety, hypertension, sex hormone imbalance, insulin resistance, obesity, insomnia, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (in women). Too little cortisol can cause inflammatory disease. Symptoms of depressed cortisol can include depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypotension, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, infertility, impotence (in men), and fibromyalgia.  (Source: ‘Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief‘)

Clearly we are not made to handle chronic stress. We are able to handle short term stressors quite well. It’s the unrelenting stress that can lead to weight gain and even diabetes.

How Stress Leads to Weight Gain


Stress can lead to weight gain in many ways. Namely, chronic stress triggers cortisol in a way that is not natural or in the appropriate rhythm. Normally, cortisol should be released in a rhythm throughout the day. Stress will induce excess levels of cortisol that end up messing up that rhythm, and when this rhythm is broken it can cause further issues on down the line in our bodies. I’ve already discussed some of the hormonal issues, here are a few more ways excess cortisol affects your weight.

  • It raises your blood sugar – remember one of the jobs of cortisol is to raise the blood sugar, each time it is released it puts glucose into your muscles
  • Increases appetite and causes you to crave sugar (also due to lack of sleep because of cortisol imbalance)
  • It can reduce your ability to burn fat

Hans Selye, a doctor from the mid-1900s describes the progression of stress on the adrenal glands as the general adaptation syndrome. There are 3 stages we can go through before the adrenals are in total burnout.

3 Stages of Adrenal Fatigue


  1. The Alarm Reaction – this is when someone (with healthy adrenal glands) can perform amazingly well when the need arises. If the stress continues however, the body can move to;
  2. The Resistance Stage – this is when the adrenal glands become enlarged. The individual is responding to the stress and handling it and may feel keyed up. They may have cold, clammy hands; a rapid pulse or reduced appetite, but are not yet feeling any of the symptoms of the next stage.
  3. The Exhaustion Stage – during this stage, the individual begins to have a variety of symptoms including fatigue, digestive problems, obesity, depression, dizziness, fainting, allergies and many other problems.

If you have weak adrenal glands you may crave coffee, sugar and salt. To effectively treat the adrenal glands, you must eliminate as much stress from your life as possible. Stress can be controlled -even though circumstances can not be. Stress is cumulative. Emotional, structural and chemical stress all affect the body the same way. Your adrenal glands do not know the difference between a divorce, an intense workout or excess carb consumption; though excess carbs will add to the stress of the divorce.

One way we have total control of reducing stress is by what and how we eat. As I’ve said before, a lower carbohydrate diet, eating frequent meals and getting plenty of rest and the right kind/amount of exercise are all things we can choose to do to help reduce our stress burdens.

If you are someone who becomes dizzy when standing up suddenly you most likely have low adrenal function. Low adrenal function comes from a long standing high cortisol output and chronic stress. The adrenal glands are responsible for keepign the blood pressure in the normal range for the few seconds of compensation after moving from a recumbent to a standing position. Weakness in the adrenal glands can cause dizziness when standing, known as orthostatic hypotension.


Steps To Reduce Stress

  1. If you are someone who lives with chronic stress or stressors in your life it is imperative to manage your blood sugar through diet well. If you struggle with weight or maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, please do not ‘diet’ or reduce your food consumption. Eat as much as you like within the dietary template I’ve shared. Do not reduce calories and eat every 2-3 hours to keep your blood sugar stable and from dipping too low, along with getting to high. Remember our bloodstream can only handle 5 grams of glucose before it requires an insulin response -so keep your sugars/carbs low enough to avoid too much insulin. Do not skip meals, and avoid sugar as these are both especially stressful to the adrenal glands. Eating sugar, as we know, causes a temporary increase in blood sugar which soon drops. Skipping meals also causes the blood sugar to drop. The adrenal glands then have to work to increase your blood sugar. Low adrenal function and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) usually go hand in hand and exist together at the same time.
  2. Get plenty of rest. Our bodies work well on their own circadian rhythm that correlates with when we naturally release cortisol. Make sure you get plenty of sleep if you find you’ve dealt with too many stressors and may likely have exhausted adrenals because of it. At least 8 hours, optimally between 10 pm and 6 am.
  3. Do not over exercise. Too much exercise is taxing on the body and yet another stressor. Make your exercise sessions gentle if you are under a lot of stress. Things like hikes, walks, water aerobics, yoga and stretching are all very mild forms of exercise.
  4. Support yourself with adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs that help your body adapt well to stress. I highly recommend the book linked below on adaptogens (an Amazon affiliate link by the way). Also, try my Schisandra Five Flavor tea to help balance cortisol levels and balance the circadian rhythm as well (it contains 3 different adaptogenic herbs). It also contains licorice root. Licorice can increase cortisol half-life and is extremely useful in correctiong low cortisol states, giving the adrenal glands a ‘rest’ and chance to restore.
  5. Check your cortisol/DHEA rhythm with a salivary adrenal stress profile or adrenal salivary index test. You can ask your practitioner to order one for you or order one for yourself. If you want to order your own, I recommend Direct Labs (not available in all states); Metametrix test, saliva-Metametrix Kit
  6. Meditate. Learn deep breathing techniques. Listen to relaxation cds. Go to a yoga class. Laugh. Accept nurturing and affection. Learn to take time daily to relax and do something enjoyable to help you destress. Get regular massage. Get outside into natural light as much as possible.

Wanna learn more as well as get some support?

Join my Revitalize Your Health course and forum!

(These are all books I have referred to often myself and are Amazon affiliate links).

Any Questions? Feel free to comment below……..




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