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Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain

It’s no secret that stress can have a negative impact on our health. and chronic stress can significantly impact our weight and cortisol levels. Throughout this article we are going to explore the link between stress, cortisol and weight. I will explain how stress causes weight gain and what steps you can take to restore…


Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain

It’s no secret that stress can have a negative impact on our health. and chronic stress can significantly impact our weight and cortisol levels.

Throughout this article we are going to explore the link between stress, cortisol and weight. I will explain how stress causes weight gain and what steps you can take to restore balance to your body. 

Understanding Cortisol and Stress

Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. It plays a crucial role in the body’s fight-or-flight response, helping to regulate metabolism, blood sugar, and immune function.

While this is a normal and natural response, chronic stress can lead to consistently high levels of cortisol, which can have negative effects on the body.

The Link Between Stress, Cortisol and Weight Gain

Prolonged periods of high stress can lead to changes in cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdominal area. This is because cortisol stimulates the storage of fat, particularly visceral fat, which is stored deep in the abdomen and surrounds vital organs. Visceral fat is associated with an increased risk of various health issues, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Types of Stress

There are 3 types of stress. Physical stress, mental stress and emotional stress. All 3 types of stress have the ability to alter your hormones and ability to maintain a healthy weight.

Examples of Physical Stress Include:

– Fasting 

– High intensity exercise 

– Cold plunging

– Low nutrient diet, restrictive dieting (e.g. keto diet, vegan diet)

– Poor sleep

– Gut health issues

– Chronic pain and inflammation

– Chronic illness

While some of these physical stressors can be helpful (e.g. fasting, cold plunging) for many chronically stressed women, these habits can cause more harm than good. It is important to build resilience and regulate your nervous system first. Once regulated, you may choose to engage in these behaviours if desired. 

Examples of Mental Stress Include:

– Work pressures

– Study

– Rumination, replaying unpleasant events

– Constantly juggling a mental to-do list

– Caring full time for a loved one

Examples of Emotional Stress Include

– Grief

– Suppressed negative emotions like anger or sadness

– Fear or constant worry

How Stress Affects Eating Habits

In addition to directly impacting our health, hormones and fat storage, stress can also influence our eating habits. 

Emotional eating, binge eating and seeking food for comfort or as a reward are common behaviours that develop in response to chronic stress. 

Stress can disrupt the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin, leading to increased appetite and cravings for unhealthy, high-calorie foods.

Chronic Stress and Metabolic Health

Chronic stress not only affects weight but also has broader implications for metabolic health. High cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance, a condition in which cells become less responsive to the effects of insulin making weight loss more difficult than it needs to be. This can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.  

Chronic Stress and Female Health 

High levels of stress can have a negative impact on the delicate balance between the hormones estrogen and progesterone. When experiencing chronic stress, the body may sacrifice progesterone production leaving us in an estrogen dominant state. Estrogen dominance is associated with difficult menstrual cycles, PCOS, cystic acne and weight gain. 

Signs that Cortisol may be having an impact on your weight 

– You’re experiencing unwarranted weight gain 

– You’re noticing an increase of weight around the abdominal area 

– You crave sweets and salty food especially in the afternoon and evening 

– Your sleeping patterns have changed and you struggle to relax 

– You wake up without an appetite 

– You’re unable to stick to diets that used to work in the past 

– You feel irritable and have a short fuse 

Stress related weight gain rarely responds well to standard methods of dieting and restriction. 

This is because restrictive diets are inherently stressful and the last thing we need is more stress. 

While cortisol is one of the primary stress hormones, it is not the only hormone affected during periods of high stress. Insulin, estrogen, thyroid hormones and the hunger hormones all become affected and in order to successfully lose weight, we must restore harmony to the chaos. 

There are a number of other health challenges that can arise due to chronic stress. These include gut health issues, loss of muscle mass and changes to thyroid function. 

All challenges must be addressed to support you in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. 

Managing Stress for Weight Management 

To manage weight effectively, it’s essential to address stress, nervous system health, hormone health and gut health. Here are some strategies that can help: 

Stress Reduction Techniques & Mindful Practices: Relaxation techniques such as meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga, or deep breathing can help to lower stress and cortisol levels. 

Nourishing Diet: Stop fasting, stop restricting and stop trying to eat less. Nourishing your body while wanting to lose weight can seem counterintuitive but your body is not currently in a state to respond well to restriction. Focus on meeting your nutritional needs and your body will reward you with safe, gentle, long lasting weight loss. 

Adequate Sleep: Prioritise sleep to ensure your body has time to rest and recover from daily stressors. 

Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular, gentle physical activity like walking or beginner Pilates can help reduce stress and improve overall health. 

Supplements to Reduce Stress: Magnesium is the key mineral required to buffer stress. My preferred form is magnesium glycinate due to its nervous system calming effects.  

Topical magnesium lotion* or a magnesium bath are also highly beneficial. 

Herbal medicine: Passionflower, zizyphus and lemon balm can calm the nervous system, improve sleep and significantly reduce stress. Talk to your naturopath to see if these options are a good fit for you. 

Conclusion 

Stress significantly impacts our ability to lose weight by altering our hormones, gut health, eating habits and general sense of well being.

If you would like support to navigate your way back to optimal health, here are 3 ways I can help: 

1. Work with me! Book a consultation in person (Evandale, SA) or AUS + NZ wide online via Zoom

2. Listen to the Holistic Weight Loss Podcast

3. Connect with me on Instagram | Pinterest | YouTube | LinkedIn | Facebook

*request access through my profile on Vital.ly