Angela was desperate to lose weight. Over the past six months she’d noticed her weight going up but couldn’t figure out why. As far as Angela could tell, she was eating the same things she always had. Her activity level hadn’t changed. So she came to see me, her family doctor, asking to get her hormones checked, thinking maybe that was the problem.
I checked her hormones and a few other things besides. Everything came back normal. We began to peel back the layers and talk about what else had been going on over the past six months.
It turned out Angela had been going through a pretty rough time. She’d been given some added responsibilities at work, and she had also been going through a contentious divorce.
“Sure, occasionally I comfort myself, but there’s no way that accounts for all this weight gain”, she said.
“I think you’re probably right,” I said. “But at the same time, I suspect it is the stress that’s contributing to your weight gain. Here’s what I think is happening.” I went on to explain what I meant.
The truth is, stress is clearly linked to weight gain, but there are several different reasons why. If you’re struggling to reach your happy/healthy weight, here’s why stress may be sabotaging your efforts:
Our bodies are amazing. Long ago, we evolved to survive various threats: a surge of adrenaline sets off a cascade of physiologic changes that help us get away or defend ourselves. You know, the fight-or-flight response. Then, once the danger is passed, one of the hormones—cortisol—triggers our urge to build up our stores again and eat. So we’ll have the energy for the next threat that attacks.
It’s a good system…when there’s actual physical danger.
Now, the danger tends to be less often mortal danger of a predator…and more often a stack of bills that need to be paid. But our systems still function the same. Even once the immediate threat is resolved, there’s still a cascade of responses that happen. Particularly if the stress is sustained.
One of the hormones released in response to stress and danger is cortisol. And cortisol is an interesting beast—it has a few beneficial effects, but many downsides. One is that it triggers our urge to build up our stores again. Assuming we’ve just had to spend a bunch of valuable energy in fighting off a bear, we need to replenish that energy, so cortisol triggers an urge to eat. Helpful when there actually was a bear…less so when it was simply a triggering meeting at work.
And cortisol has other, shall we say, undesirable effects that are even longer-lasting than the urge to inhale an entire buffet. But that leads us to…
2: BELLY FAT
Among other things, cortisol sends signals to our metabolism that we’re going to need to store some of our incoming energy as belly fat. Belly fat, historically and evolutionary-wise, was an excellent adaptation that ensured our survival. A highly resilient way of storing excess energy, it could help us survive a long winter, a famine, a siege from a neighboring village…whatever.
Of course now when fewer sieges happen, it’s less beneficial. Trouble is, it’s what our bodies want to do: evolution selected for those belly fat genes. In days long past, the guy with the most resilient belly fat was the last guy to starve and die when a famine hit. That guy went on to be your ancestor….because all the other potential ancestors died before they could procreate. You got the resistant belly fat genes.
Lucky you, yes?
3: EMOTIONAL EATING
This one is more of a behavioral thing than strict physiology. Anxiety and stress tend to trigger emotional eating and this is a particular problem given our constant and excessive access to food of all types. In previous epochs, stress eating might have looked like you scarfing down an extra handful of nuts and seeds while sitting around the fire, listening to stories. Now, stress eating looks like you taking a sharp left into the Dairy Queen drive thru on your way home from work.
To make things worse, we’re hard-wired to want the worst stuff. High-sugar, high-fat food gives us a dopamine hit: the “feel good” neurotransmitter. It’s rewarding and soothing—at least temporarily. Until the inevitable guilt spiral of shame and self-blame begins.
4: MINDLESS EATING
Stress and worry are highly distracting. Which means they are contributors to another related, yet distinct, eating problem: mindless eating. This is when we are eating without awareness, like an automaton. When we’re too busy in our own heads, tending to those spinning thoughts, we often don’t even notice that our arm keeps raising the fork to our mouth. Ten minutes later we hit bare plate and realize we’ve hardly tasted—let alone enjoyed—a single bite.
5: SLEEP DEPRIVATION
Sleep disruption and insomnia are common, but even more so when we’re stressed. Anxiety disrupts our sleep-wake cycle and messes with our sleep rhythms. As a result, we wake feeling exhausted and beat a straight path to the coffee maker—which can interfere with our sleep the next night, too.
The question is: how is that connected with weight?
It revolves around a pair of neurochemicals, called ghrelin and leptin, that control appetite. Essentially, ghrelin is your hunger hormone. Released by the lining of your stomach, it sends signals to your brain that it’s time to eat. Leptin basically does the opposite by sending a “full” signal.
It turns out lack of sleep disrupts the normal functioning of ghrelin and leptin. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is associated with higher levels of ghrelin, more hunger, and more cravings—especially for carbs. We have more difficulty resisting temptation and sticking to our healthy eating resolve.
There’s a lot more to it, but the research has clearly demonstrated that when you’re sleep deprived, it’s more difficult to lose weight.
But let’s go back to Angela. After unpacking all the stressors in her life and the effect they were having, it was clear that when it came to her weight loss efforts, she would be fighting an uphill battle until she got a handle on her stress.
And maybe you’re in a similar situation. If you think stress is sabotaging your weight loss plans, what can you do about it?
Truth is, there is a lot you can do about stress. I have much more to say about this—stress is one of my favorite topics—but I’ll save the details for future posts.
In the meantime, if you want to get started on managing stress, you can download (for free!) a 2-page PDF checklist with my Top 10 Stress Detox Tools. Just click here to grab it!
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I love collecting tricks and tips to help people stay healthy and maintain a happy weight. Click through to read one of my all-time faves: a very easy trick (…and fashionable, to boot).
Here are some other posts that I put in the category of “weight loss ninja”: