It’s widely accepted that food plays a big role in weight regulation and that a healthy diet is key to a healthy weight; but when it comes to reaching and maintaining those ideal numbers, another factor can weigh just as heavily on the scale (no pun intended).
The stress response
The brain is an intricately smart machine, designed to keep us safe and alert in the face of danger. It has specific mechanisms in place to help us survive, which involve the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol.
When your amygdala first notices a stressor, your hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine preparing the body to fight or flight. Epinephrine increases heart rate, blood sugar and rushes blood to the muscles, while norepinephrine increases blood pressure.
If a stressor persists for more than a few minutes (such as when we’re chronically stressed), the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH. ACTH then signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol.
Cortisol raises blood sugar, which is intended to keep your brain on high alert, and prepares you to better withstand pain and stress. It also suppresses other bodily functions that are not immediately required for survival, such as reproduction, immunity, digestion and growth.
Additionally, cortisol plays a central role in metabolism, body composition and the accumulation of body fat. Particularly, cortisol appears to stimulate fat redistribution and accumulation around the belly area (1, 2).
Cortisol and weight gain
Chronic stress has been associated with higher levels of obesity.
Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of Obesity (3) looked at cortisol levels of 2,527 men and women over age 54, who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging.
Researchers found that cortisol levels (measured in hair) were positively correlated to larger waist circumference (belly size) and higher body mass index (BMI). In order words, the higher the cortisol levels, the bigger the waist size and BMI.
Furthermore, functional MRI studies have shown reduced sensitivity of food reward circuits in the brain in response to stress, which may predispose individuals to seek comfort foods (4). It’s no secret that some of us, when we’re stressed, turn to food for psychological comfort rather than actual hunger.
It appears that stress drives us to eat more calorically rich and satisfying foods (think pizza, muffins, desserts, chocolate, chips…), perhaps as an attempt to compensate for the decreased stimulation of the pleasure centers in the brain. It is possible that the stress eating induced by the physiological stress response is what contributes to weight gain.
But there’s always more to the story.
Cortisol’s vicious cycle
How is cortisol’s, specifically, linked to increased central adiposity (belly fat)?
The tendency to obesity (and the characteristic fat distribution) in Cushing’s syndrome is well established. Cushing’s syndrome is marked by increased levels of cortisol and the telling “apple body shape” – characterized by increased abdominal obesity with fairly thin arms and legs. Other symptoms include weight gain in the face (moon face) and in the back of the neck, generalized fatigue, depression and mood swings, excessive facial hair growth, and diabetes (5).
In essence, Cushing’s syndrome magnifies and puts in perspective the effects of too much cortisol.
Cortisol & Belly fat
Cortisol, through increases in caloric and dietary fat intake along with increased breakdown of circulating triglycerides, increases the amount of fatty acids in circulation which are then available for ectopic fat distribution (in liver, muscle, and fat cells in the mid-section). Cortisol also increases fat production in liver cells via increased expression of the enzyme fatty acid synthase. It also promotes pre-adipocyte (immature fat cells) conversion to mature adipocytes, causing an increase in the number of fat cells (6).
Furthermore, studies have looked at one particular enzyme in adipose tissue as the possible culprit: 11β-HSD1, regenerates cortisol from cortisone and when over-expressed (present in higher-than-normal numbers) in fat tissue leads to central obesity and glucose intolerance (7, 8 ).
The up-regulation of this enzyme in fat cells appears to be a key contributor to obesity and metabolic dysfunction, which may explain the clinical similarities between Cushing’s syndrome and the metabolic syndrome, and is an exciting target for possible future treatments aiming to reduce cortisol effects in fat cells (7).
In simpler terms, these tissue-specific alterations in cortisol metabolism appear to lead to a vicious cycle of increased cortisol levels -> increased fat accumulation -> increased fat (weight gain) -> more cortisol conversion from cortisone in fat tissue -> more fat accumulation…
While we cannot possibly control all the stressors in our life, we CAN control how we perceive and react to them.
Mindfulness is a great tool for dealing with stress. When you adopt a mindful stance about your current situation, stressful as it may be, you allow yourself to examine your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations without being completely swept by it.
It is akin to observing a lighting cloud or a burning ship passing you by without being caught up in its mess. That is, even though you may be feeling strong emotions, you are not overwhelmed or intimated by them – you’re just an observer allowing them to run their course.
- In a quiet corner, sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes and begin taking a few deep breaths.
- Observe what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling with the curiosity of an outside observer. Describe any bodily sensation that come to your attention (pain in your neck, tightness in your chest…).
- Continue breathing deeply into this sensations while imagining that you are sending waves of relief to these areas with each breath.
- Do this for a few minutes until you’re feeling more relaxed. Whenever you feel stressed, you can come back to this exercise.
Grounding catapults you out of your mind chatter and allows you to feel centered and connected to your surroundings. It involves deliberately directing your attention to some aspect of your experience, such as your body’s position, your surroundings and your senses.
- Imagine a white stream of light growing downward from the base of your spine, going through the earth beneath the floor. Imagine the stream of light anchoring itself to the center of the earth. Feel your connection with the earth. As you breathe in and out, imagine your breath traveling up and down the cord, strengthening your connection to the earth.
- Walk barefoot in nature (the sand, in the grass, pavement, etc.). Feel your toes, the soles of your feet, and your heels connecting you to the earth.
- Using your belly, breathe in for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, and then pause for a count of four. Repeat this for a few minutes until you’re completely relaxed.
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard about the benefits of yoga for stress relief. Yoga increases the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming side) and reduces cortisol levels.
One study conducted by researchers at the University of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, suggested that even a single yoga session can encourage the nervous system to find flexibility and balance (9).
By training yourself to actively observe while staying calm in poses, you’ll be able to do the same thing when difficult sensations, thoughts, or emotions arise in the face of stress. Instead of going into your habitual reaction mode, you’ll notice what’s happening while staying present enough to choose an appropriate response (10).
Chill & lose weight?
Wouldn’t it be great if the solution to losing weight was as simple as to just chill out? All of a sudden we would have a flood of zen people roaming the earth. But as you may already suspect, nothing is ever as straight forward or as simple as it seems.
Finding successful ways to manage stress can shift the scale in your favor, but it should be done in the context of healthy eating and an active lifestyle – which, by the way, are both extremely useful in decreasing stress hormones and promoting a healthy physiologic response.
Taking a holistic approach to stress has the potential to shrink your pants’ size by a few numbers, while also adding a few years to your life.
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