What is Stress doing to your Weight?

By Kim Hofmann RD(SA)
What do you do when you are under stress?  Most people find it difficult to continue with their healthy eating habits.  They either eat to fill their emotional void or grab some fast food just because there is no time to prepare something healthy.  But that's not the only reason why weight gain is so prevalent during stressful times.  The hormone that may be making life difficult for you is cortisol.

Cortisol is normally released in response to events such as waking up in the morning, exercising and severe stress.  Its role in the body is to regulate energy by stimulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism and maintaining blood sugar levels.  Cortisol is also involved in the 'fight/flight' response, where an excess of cortisol is briefly secreted due to a physical or psychological stressor.  The effects of cortisol become harmful when the hormone is constantly being secreted due to our ever-stressed, fast-pasted lifestyles.

From a weight gain perspective, the constant secretion of cortisol may not only promote weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Some studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat to be accumulated in the abdominal area rather than in the hips.

There are 4 ways that cortisol could influences weight gain:
1. Cortisol can take fat from stored areas and move it to the abdominal area!  It also helps fat cells develop into mature fat cells.
2. Cortisol causes a constant supply of glucose in the blood leading to increased blood sugar levels.  However, it also suppresses the effect of insulin, which causes the cells to be 'starved' of glucose.  This may cause you to feel hungry which could lead to overeating. 
3. Cortisol also stimulates appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods as it binds to the hypothalamus receptors in the brain as well as influences other hormones and stress responsive factors that are connected to appetite.
4. Eating may become the activity that relieves your stress!

How can you lower your cortisol levels?
 The best method for lowering cortisol levels is exercise
 You need to learn how to manage stress – some strategies include better quality sleep, breath work, acupuncture
 Eliminating (or at least reducing) your intake of caffeine and alcohol
 Eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugar
 Minimal intake of saturated (animal) fats
 Improving your intake of whole plant foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains (this is to maximize the intake of fibre, antioxidants, phytonutrients etc.)
 Ensuring that you are getting enough omega-3 fatty acid

These dietary manipulations are often called an 'anti-inflammatory diet'.  Reducing stress and minimizing inflammation is the most powerful way to moderate the risk for illness and chronic disease.  We need to be aware of the way our body responds to the demands we place in it and remember that our bodies have extraordinary healing powers.  By putting the best diet and lifestyle strategies in place you can improve your health and increase your longevity!