OK, let's get real. Nowadays, the word “stress” is so commonly used, it's hard not to get stressed about being stressed!
But did you know that stress can significantly impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight?
Yes, it’s true… 😞 Unfortunately, it can also prevent you from losing weight. Whether it's due to higher-than-normal levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, unhealthy stress-induced behaviors, or a mix of the two, stress and weight gain are connected.
The link between stress and cortisol 🔗
Let's dig into how it actually happens.
The adrenal glands, located right above the kidneys, produce cortisol. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol when you're stressed, and as a result, glucose is released into your bloodstream. All of this is happens to provide you with the energy you need to flee a dangerous situation 🚨Our ancestors developed this stress response to survive. Years ago, back in the caveman days, the fight or flight response was crucial when you needed to fend off a hungry tiger, or when you were facing other extreme events.
Once the threat passes, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar lowers. Cortisol is then released, jumping in to refill your energy supply swiftly at this point. Nowadays, our fight or flight response is more easily activated due to all the stimuli of our modern world 📱 Even though we might not be in a dangerous situation, our body can perceive an event as dangerous and will trigger a stress response, contributing to an unhealthy level of cortisol within us.
How does cortisol affect your body?
Cortisol has a significant impact on our bodies. In addition to aiding in your body’s stress response, its other functions include:
- Increasing blood sugar
- Reducing inflammation
- Suppressing the immune system
- Aiding in nutrient metabolism
Do cortisol levels affect weight?
Sadly, yes. Multiple factors can influence your body weight, but hormone regulation is one of the important ones.
While your body's endocrine system normally keeps hormones like cortisol in a healthy range, there are times when your hormone levels can become lowered or raised. Especially when you're stressed 😰
Small rises in cortisol levels in response to stress are normal and are not likely to cause negative side effects. However, in certain instances, cortisol levels may remain chronically elevated. When this happens, the following side effects may occur:
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Changes in mood
- Difficulty concentrating
- Insulin resistance
When it comes to weight gain and cortisol, what you’ll most likely notice is your increased cravings for unhealthy food.
Cortisol and sugar cravings
Sugar is generally the first thing you reach for when you're anxious or stressed. We know we’re all too familiar with those "comfort foods" 🍩 Although these foods give your body the fast relief it thinks it needs, they aren’t actually helping.
The disadvantage of eating a lot of sugar is that your body stores it, especially after stressful situations. This energy is primarily stored as belly fat, which is notoriously difficult to lose.
Cue the beginning of a vicious cycle: you become stressed, you release cortisol, you gain weight, you crave sugar, you consume sugar, and you gain more weight. Rinse and repeat 🔁
In addition to causing hormonal changes, stress can also lead to the following unhealthy behaviors, all of which can contribute to weight gain:
Stress-induced unhealthy habits
- Emotional eating: Increased cortisol levels can drive you to seek unhealthy foods, as well as consume more than you normally would.
- Eating "accessible" or fast food: We tend to consume the first thing we see and/or what is readily available and accessible when we are stressed, which is not usually the healthiest option.
- Exercising less: With an overwhelming schedule or lack of motivation, exercising may be one of the last things on your to-do list.
- Skipping meals: When you're juggling a dozen tasks at once, eating a nutritious meal may go to the bottom of your priority list. For example, you may find yourself missing breakfast because you're late for work.
- Sleeping less: When people are worried, they often have difficulties sleeping. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to a slower metabolism. Overtiredness can also lower willpower and lead to poor eating habits.
Don’t get discouraged though – there is hope! We know we’ve just thrown a lot at you, but by implementing the below healthy habits, you can break the cycle of stress and weight gain.
Ways to lower your cortisol levels ✅
Here are a few strategies that can help you reduce stress:
- Make exercise a priority 🏃♀️ Exercising is an important component of stress reduction and weight management.
- Eat healthier comfort foods 🍎 You don’t need to eat sweets to feel great. Having alternative healthy snacks in your pantry can make it easy to reach for a healthy option during times of stress.
- Practice mindful eating 🍽️ By focusing on what you're eating, without any interruptions, you can reduce stress, boost weight loss, and avoid weight gain.
- Drink more water🚰 It's easy to confuse hunger with thirst. However, misunderstanding these two desires can cause you to consume more calories than your body requires, resulting in weight gain.
- Incorporate stress-relief strategies into your daily life 🧘 Whether you practice yoga or enjoy reading a good book, consider incorporating easy stress relievers into your daily routine. Common ways to reduce stress include breathwork, meditating, listening to music, or going for a stroll. All of these activities can help you manage your weight by lowering your cortisol levels.
By engaging in healthy habits throughout your day, you’ll be able to reduce your stress levels. With proper stress management, you’ll have your health under control in no time!