Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?
By Carolyn Richardson
Stress can make you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do. Your reaction to stress, be it overeating or eating junk food, is partly due to hormones. Cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, controls metabolic functions in the body and is one of the hormones released during the body’s fight or flight response which is activated by stress. At normal levels, the energy and stamina you need to escape danger is regulated in part by cortisol. But in excess, cortisol can kill your ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Cortisol and Appetite
Under normal conditions, cortisol activates energy from fat and carbohydrate stores, stimulates insulin release and helps maintain blood sugar levels. These are necessary metabolic processes that control appetite. The regular pattern of cortisol release is highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight. When this pattern is thrown off by excess cortisol released due to stress, an increase in appetite results. Not only have multiple studies found those with higher levels of cortisol eat more than those who secreted less, but a different study found that a stressful event could impair the brain’s ability to control food intake. Adversely, that study, led by researchers in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary, found that blocking stress hormones could reverse the brain’s impairment to control appetite.
Cortisol and Abdominal Fat
Excess levels of cortisol not only affect how much you want to eat, it also affects where you put on weight. A study found higher levels of cortisol was connected to women storing fat in their abdominal area. Published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the results found, “Central fat distribution is related to greater psychological vulnerability to stress and cortisol reactivity.” With abdominal fat highly associated with heart disease and diabetes, taking note of your visceral fat by tracking your waist-to-hip ratio could help you assess how stress may be affecting your body composition.
Alleviating Stress and Normal Cortisol Levels
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting up to 90% of the doctor visits in the US may be triggered by a stress-related illness, getting rid of stress is important to your overall health. The counterpart to the fight or flight response is the relaxation response where physiological processes return to a normal state. For those who endure continual stressful situations, the relaxation response, and its cortisol lowering effect can be induced by exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and other stress-management techniques. While predicting how stress affects cortisol levels is difficult because people react differently to stressful events, we can all benefit from letting go of the weight that extra stress can put on our lives.
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