During times of stress, maintaining a healthy diet may become challenging- to say the least. Whether you’re emotional eating or indulging in fast food because of a lack of time for wholesome meal preparations, a stressed-out lifestyle rarely promotes healthy habits. As a result, stress is often seen as the culprit for fluctuations in weight - and for good reason. While acute stress is linked to a suppression of appetite, and thus weight loss, chronic stress generally promotes the intake of high-fat, high-density foods, and thus weight gain. Here we’ll take a closer look at chronic stress to understand, in more depth, how stress can lead to weight gain.
Cortisol is a hormone in the body produced by the adrenal glands, and it’s involved in maintaining blood pressure, energy production, and blood sugar levels. It functions primarily by stimulating the metabolism of fats and carbohydrates and inducing a rise in insulin levels (to maintain sugar levels) [R].
Cortisol is normally secreted in a diurnal variation pattern. This means that its levels are highest when we wake up and lowest at night, so its levels naturally fluctuate.
The Stress Hormone
In addition to the normal daily release of cortisol, it’s also secreted in times of stress- hence its reference as “the stress hormone”. Both psychological and physical stress can induce an abnormal spike in cortisol levels- as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine levels. This spike disrupts the normal diurnal secretion of cortisol and is a defense mechanism meant to help individuals in the “fight-or-flight” response by intensifying alertness, increasing blood pressure and heart-rate, and inducing a spike in energy production to prepare the body from any threat [R]. Obviously, this is a great mechanism to fight off (or sprint away from), say, a lion. However, most stress nowadays is not as acute as a typical “fight or flight” situation and its chronicity can lead to a myriad of consequences.
Stress, Cortisol, and Weight-Gain
The chronic disruption of cortisol levels by stress promotes weight gain because cortisol leads to cravings of sweet, salty, and high-fat foods [R]. In addition, high stress can also influence where fat deposits accumulate. Studies reveal that stress and high cortisol levels tend to cause fat to deposit in the abdominal area. This is referred to as visceral fat and it is correlated with disorders such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease [R].
Keeping Cortisol Levels in Check
Don’t let cortisol stress you out though. Stressing about the effects of stress can lead to … more stress. Start to bring awareness to what causes stress in your daily life, and begin to incorporate some stress management techniques. There are lots of fun- and proven- ways to reduce cortisol levels in times of high stress including low-intensity exercise such as yoga (chronic high intensity training increases cortisol!), dark chocolate, adaptogens, and our favorite - laughter [R][R][R]. So next time you feel like your stress levels are affecting your health, grab some unsweetened dark chocolate and ashwagandha while you enjoy some comedy.