Stress, Hormones and Weight Management
I often find myself involved in conversations about weight gain, or difficulty losing weight and stress. What is this connection between our weight and our stress level? The simple answer is that stress may lead to unhealthy behaviors like eating comfort foods. But there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes. Stress can cause consistent imbalances in our hormones which can lead to weight gain and also the struggle to lose weight. There are many, many hormones involved in this process – here I will talk a little about the two biggies: Cortisol and insulin.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone secreted from the adrenal gland and is the body’s main stress hormone. Along with being our “fight or flight” hormone, it has many other roles. For instance, cortisol manages how our bodies use carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It regulates blood pressure and helps reduce inflammation. It controls our sleep cycles and also boosts our energy levels so we can handle the stress we are faced with.
When we experience stress, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline to give us the energy to handle that stress. Our body’s main source of energy is glucose (aka blood sugar). Cortisol taps into glucagon storage in the liver to release an extra boost of glucose to give us the energy to “fight or flee” by initially slowing insulin production, allowing the glucose to be used immediately. Under normal circumstances, insulin helps regulate our blood sugar levels and is our “storage” hormone. When there is more glucose than the body needs, insulin helps the body store excess glucose in the liver and also helps move nutrients like amino acids and fatty acids into cells and assists in storing fat. It helps us to feel full and sends satisfaction messages to the brain. But when we are under stress, and insulin is halted, we aren't getting the message to put the fork down.
Theoretically, after the stress has passed, our hormone levels should even back out. But what happens when we are under chronic stress? Our cortisol level stays elevated long-term. Our blood sugar stays elevated. The demand for insulin to regulate high blood sugar is elevated. Cells don’t respond appropriately to insulin’s messages. Insulin spikes can lead to blood sugar drops leaving you hungry and craving carbs (because that’s where glucose comes from). And remember how one of the roles of cortisol was to manage how our body uses carbs, protein and fat (metabolism)? The end result of the process can be an increase in appetite. So now, we’re in an elevated cortisol state and we’re hungrier than ever. There is also some evidence that shows that increased cortisol and insulin levels lead to higher intakes of high fat and high sugar foods – comfort foods. It’s a never-ending cycle.
On top of the hormone imbalances, stress causes unhealthy behavioral changes like disrupted sleep (which will also increase your cortisol levels), skipping workouts, skipping meals, eating fast food in a rush or mindlessly eating comfort foods. It feels like a rollercoaster we just can’t get off!
So how do we begin to battle the stress and hormone imbalances and get our bodies back to a place where weight control is possible? It’s too simple to say, “Eliminate chronic stress.” If your chronic stress is due to your job, and you need a job to survive and support your family, you can’t just eliminate that stress. But there are some changes you can make in your daily life to help manage your stress response and some diet and lifestyle changes you can make to get your hormones back on track.
- Get adequate sleep. Not enough sleep actually increases cortisol levels. Read Why We Sleep by neuroscientist Matthew Welker to get the down-low on everything sleep related.
- Follow a real, whole food, balanced diet with plenty of fresh vegetables, protein and quality carbohydrates (low-glycemic).
- Eat “clean” – minimize or eliminate sugar and processed foods. If you’re unsure of where to start with eating clean – https://www.cleaneatingmag.com/ has some useful information.
- Get enough magnesium. Studies show magnesium can increase insulin sensitivity – not to mention all of the other benefits like inflammation reduction and improved sleep quality!
- Exercise regularly – exercise obviously promotes weight loss but helps manage stress levels as well. Take care not to over-stress your body as this too can increase your cortisol levels. Join the B.Fit Running Club for motivation or if you need help designing an exercise plan that works for you, BodyFit now offers personal training! Contact us for more information.
- Meditate! Meditation can significantly lower cortisol levels. To learn more about meditation, listen to the 10% Happier podcast with Dan Harris or jump right in on Insight Timer’s free app with plenty of guided meditations to choose from.
- Practice mindful eating – focus on the food you are eating without distraction and stressors. Check out the Food for Thought blog to learn more about mindful eating. https://blog.thecenterformindfuleating.org/
- Incorporate stress relief strategies into your daily routine.
- Listen to music. I love Spotify’s Folk & Acoustic mix playlists when I need calm.
- Practice yoga. Check out Alo Yoga’s you tube channel for a variety of yoga sequences you can do in as little as 15 minutes.
- Read a book by your favorite author. I have too many to list but I’ll share my dirty little secret – I love anything by Elin Hilderbrand when I just need to escape reality.
- Get outside – walk or hike – connect with nature and get some fresh air and sunshine!
- And finally, if you’re in pain or dealing with an injury that is causing your chronic stress, don’t ignore it any longer! Schedule an appointment with BodyFit Physical Therapy today and get back on track.