Stress and Weight Control

The best way to quit smoking is to never start. That statement is not very helpful for those in current struggle to quit. Controlling one’s weight is no different. The best way to maintain your weight is to keep control of it. The way to keep control of it is to understand the physiological response to stress. Stress however, is understood differently from everyone.

If we take the simple definition of disease and connect it with weight gain or loss, then unhealthy weight gain/loss can be considered a disease. Based on Merriam-Webster, weight issues are simply signs and symptoms from the implications that impair normal physiological function. There are not very many who have normal physiological function as a result to extreme weight issues? Paradoxically, we need stress to allow our bodies to improve overall, but never to the point of losing or gaining unnecessary weight. Weight control can be a strong sign that we are not adapting well enough to stress.

The key is to understand how you’re bodies preference to handling the stress. Here are some key things to keep in mind about handling stress:

  1. Do my family genes make me more susceptible to certain conditions?
    1. Research has shown that we are all genetically predisposed to attract certain diseases or conditions, but only when combined with the wrong lifestyle and/or habits. A new field called “Nutrigenomics” details the predisposition for certain genes to react negatively based on environmental changes such as lifestyle or eating habits. Susceptibility to develop type II diabetes for some becomes greater when combining a diet full of high caloric intake and low caloric usage. If diabetes is common in your family, then stay away from certain foods mixed with inactivity. It becomes the worst ingredient for your body to face, especially during high amount of stress.
  2. Do I exercise as much as I need?
    1. Many of us assume that the standard 20 minute recommendation is all we need. The body needs more than 20 minutes when compensating for jobs that require us to sit more than eight hours a day. During those eight hours, our metabolism and blood flow slow down by as much as 25%. Even the heart rate and breathing decreases by up to 25% less. When combined with poor equipment and posture, the body responds very negatively to the provided environment. In most cases, our bodies breaking point is illustrated by pain and weight gain. Determining how much exercise is needed to compensate relies on knowing certain key elements; diet, lifestyle, age, previous conditions, and even gender.
  3. Is your stress load at work coming home with you?
    1. As a country, research has shown that the average person works too much and takes less vacation than any other country. Stress at work is normal; trying to meet deadlines, impress your superior, or even take advantage of over-time. If that same stress is brought home, it compounds unequally with the stresses that we find outside of work. A common sign of holding on to stress at work is anxiety and over-fatigue from lack of sleep. The key is to learn your limitations and preferred methods to de-stress.
  4. Do you eat to live or live to eat?
    1. Most people admit that when they’re under stress, healthy eating habits can be difficult to maintain. Whether eating to fill an emotional need or grabbing fast food simply because there’s no time to prepare something healthy, a stressed-out lifestyle is rarely a healthy one. But weight gain when under stress may also be at least partly due to the body’s system of hormonal checks and balances, which can actually promote weight gain when you’re stressed out, according to some researchers.

Things to keep in mind…Stress Response

Cortisol is a critical hormone with many actions in the body. Normally, cortisol is secreted by the adrenal glands in a pattern called a diurnal variation, meaning that levels of cortisol in the bloodstream vary depending upon the time of day (normally, cortisol levels are highest in the early morning and lowest around midnight). Cortisol is important for the maintenance of blood pressure as well as the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions can be an increase in appetite.

Cortisol has been termed the “stress hormone” because excess cortisol is secreted during times of physical or psychological stress, and the normal pattern of cortisol secretion (with levels highest in the early morning and lowest at night) can be altered. This disruption of cortisol secretion may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as “toxic fat” since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks and strokes.

Stress is certainly not the only reason having for abnormal levels of cortisol. A number of diseases and conditions can result in abnormal levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Cushing’s syndrome is a term used by doctors to describe a condition in which various medical problems result in very high levels of cortisol, leading to changes in the body’s appearance and function.

stress_obesity_cortisolWeight gain or loss is dependent on a number of factors including resting metabolic rate, food intake, amount of exercise, and even the types of food consumed and the times of day food is consumed. Genetic factors also likely influence our metabolism and may explain some people’s tendency to gain or lose weight more rapidly than others. Whether or not a particular individual’s stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, with some persons being innately more “reactive” to stressful events. Studies of women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion have shown that these women also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study demonstrated that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.

The diet industry has attempted to capitalize on findings from these studies by promoting dietary supplements claiming to lower cortisol and enhance weight loss. No independent studies published in respected, peer-reviewed medical journals have shown that these supplements have any value in cortisol reduction or weight loss. In fact, exercise is the best method for lowering cortisol levels that have risen in response to stress and has the added benefit of burning calories to stimulate weight loss.

By Scott Dolan BS, LMT, CPT

References: Peeke PM, Chrousos GP. Hypercortisolism and Obesity. Ann NY Acad Sci 1995 Dec 29; 771:665-76. Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, Matthews K, Castellazzo G, Brownell KD, Bell J, Ickovics JR. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosom Med. 2000 Sep-Oct; 62(5):623-32.