Stress and Weight Loss

downloadDo you feel like you are doing everything right, eating well, exercising and you still aren’t losing weight? There may be several reasons why the scale is not going down, but one of the most common is related to the effect that stress has on our bodies and on our weight.

Most of us live under chronic low-grade stress all the time. Between work, family obligations, traffic, and our fast-paced lifestyles, it is difficult to not feel stressed out. Even worrying too much about our weight can increase our stress levels! Stress increases a hormone called cortisol, which is likely responsible for the reasons why the scale may not be moving if we are under a lot of stress.

There are over 100 hormones in the human body that function together in complex ways to influence hunger, satiety, fat storage, and muscle gain. Although research hasn’t identified all the details of the body’s hormones, several have a significant impact on body weight.  The primary stress hormone, which also influences our weight, is called cortisol. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys. Cortisol has some positive roles in our bodies, in the morning it helps motivate us to get going. It also plays a role in controlling metabolism and insulin levels.

Although cortisol plays some positive roles, levels of cortisol are increased during times of psychological or physical stress. Since it controls metabolism and insulin, during times of stress, too much cortisol can increase your appetite and cause you to deposit fat in the abdominal area.

A 2001 study of 59 healthy women found that stressed women with high cortisol levels, tended to eat more calories and sugar than those who were not under stress. Eating more calories and sugar will lead to weight gain over the long-term.

When cortisol is high, your body believes it needs to remain alert for any potential threats. Therefore, instead of shedding weight, it will slow down your metabolism and conserve energy in case it does have to react to a potential threat. This mechanism was highly adaptive when there were realistic threats such as predators to deal with regularly, but actually works against us now that we live in a different environment.

The best way to control your cortisol levels is to learn to manage your stress. Daily low-intensity exercise, like walking, reduces stress and lowers cortisol levels. Aim for at least 30-60 minutes of light walking daily to help manage stress and reduce cortisol.

High intensity exercise can actually increase cortisol, so try not to overdo it, especially if you are just starting out. You may also want to consider taking some adaptogen herbs, such as rhodiola, astragalus, and ginseng, to help lower cortisol levels.  Other ways to manage your stress include taking time out for enjoyable activities, meditation/prayer, laughing with friends, or taking a long bubble bath. Make stress management part of your daily routine to help decrease cortisol and help you reach your goals.