You go to the gym five days a week. You’re doing cardio. You’re weight training. You’re doing yoga. You take all the proper supplements. And… you haven’t dropped a pound.
If this sounds at all like you, then this article could put some things in perspective for you and take you beyond the plateau you currently find yourself stuck at.
The culprit that makes it impossible to budge the needle on the scale is stress.
Stress is often the hidden factor, lurking in the shadows, pulling the strings from beyond the veil that is preventing you from making any real progress when it comes to your weight loss goals.
In this article, we’ll go over how stress effects weight gain/loss. And we’ll cover some helpful ways to better manage stress that have worked for me in the past.
Stress and cortisol
When you perceive a situation as stressful, a tiny area at the bottom of your brain which acts as an alarm system (the hypothalamus) fires up. The hypothalamus tells the rest of your body that some serious shit is going down and we need all hands on deck to get the hell out of here.
The alarm signal gets to the rest of the body as the hypothalamus sends signals down to your adrenal glands.
The adrenal glands react to the signal by releasing a surge of hormones that will prime your brain and body to deal with the stressful situation.
The primary stress hormone released by the adrenal glands is cortisol.
Cortisol does two things: 1) it shuts down bodily functions that are nonessential to your immediate survival, and 2) it activates systems that are going to allow maximal physical and mental function for a short period of time.
The functions considered nonessential in the short term are your immune system, digestion, reproduction, and growth.
To be ready for maximal mental and physical exertion, cortisol increases the amount of sugar in the blood stream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Increased blood sugar ensures working muscles have the energy they need to function maximally (in the case you have to run away from a life or death situation); enhancing your brain’s use of glucose ensures you’re thinking clearly in case the stressful situation requires some savvy to get out of; and increasing the availability of substances that repairs tissues ensures you can recover quickly if injured.
Cortisol and weight loss
This system has been evolutionarily designed to function in the short term.
It is perfect in situations where you need to make a quick getaway. Say, getting away from a bear that is chasing you, for instance.
The stress response, and its associated cortisol release, is not meant to function in the long term.
Unfortunately, most of the things that activate the stress response nowadays are slow burning and act over a long period of time.
Things like financial stress or pressure at work don’t flair up and go away within twenty minutes. They come and persist for months or even years.
The problem is, they activate the stress response in exactly the same way as a bear attack would.
Basically, you’re living your life like you’re constantly being chased by a bear. And it’s wearing you out.
The physiological response to long term cortisol causes you to change your eating patterns, which causes you to gain weight.
Cortisol increases sugar in the blood stream. In response, beta cells in the pancreas start to produce insulin.
The sequential cortisol insulin spike creates a huge upswing in blood sugar, followed by a drop.
The drop causes you to crave high fat, sugary foods to compensate. This is exactly what Dr. Clifford Roberts of Kings College in the UK observed when he measured the food consumed and dietary restraint of women that gained weight during a stressful time.
38 healthy women in a postgraduate course participated in the study. At the beginning of the semester and 15 weeks later (right before the final exam for the course) the composition of the food they consumed, their body mass index (BMI), their levels of dietary restraint, and their cortisol levels were measured.
Increased cortisol with reduced dietary restraint and increased caloric intake were the main factors explaining increases in BMI.
The researchers also found that increased consumption of carbohydrates and saturated fat contributed to the changes in dietary restraint that resulted in weight gain.
What are some good ways to manage stress?
- Identify the source of the stress and remove it if possible
Of course, this isn’t always possible. Some regular stressors of daily life, such as work, family, and money, are here and they’re not going anywhere.
Some can be remedied. Fights with siblings or parents, squabbles with friends, a rough patch in your relationship… these can all be identified and dealt with.
Ever been so stressed out and overwhelmed by everything in your life, had one good night of sleep, and then found yourself bewildered by how much the stuff bothering you yesterday didn’t bother you at all today?
Sleeping well is your number one ally when it comes to stress management. Create the best conditions possible for good sleep and set aside enough hours in the day to feel rested.
- Focus on good nutrition
As we’ve learned in this article, stress itself is not going to make you gain weight. It is our behavioral response to stress that makes us gain weight.
Focusing on maintaining good nutrition during stressful periods in life will help manage body weight during these times and also help you better manage the stress itself.
Adaptogens can help your body adjust and prevent some of the damaging effects of stress on your body. Take them daily.
Stress is unavoidable. When it comes to stress and weight loss, there is really only one solution: manage it. Because you can’t get rid of it altogether.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other stress relieving techniques that have really worked for you!