Is Stress Causing You To Gain Weight?

 In General Health, Guelph Naturopathic Doctor

What is stress?

Stress is the bodies way of responding to any kind of demand.  Each time the body is under stress, a specific chain of physiological and hormonal reactions takes place.   There are two little glands, called your adrenal glands, that sit on top of your kidneys and produce our main stress hormone cortisol.   During bouts of stress, a physiological mechanism called the “fight or flight” response takes over.  Think of the example of you running away from a bear.  In short bursts of stress your body will appropriately respond with:

  • an increased heart rate, increased blood flow to muscles and brain, surge of sugar into the blood and muscle tension so we can run faster, longer and stronger
  • dilated pupils so we can see where we’re running
  • slowed digestion and bladder retention because there’s no bathroom breaks when we’re running from a bear

Each of the above physiological responses are essential to make us stronger, faster and more equip to escape that bear. Does this sound like a positive response to you?  It does to me!  That’s why stress and our primary stress hormone cortisol are essential for life. In short bursts, stress can be protective!

HOWEVER, the problem with today’s landscape is that people (or you more specifically) are under CHRONIC, LONG TERM bouts of stress.   Our stressors are no longer, running from bears, scavenging for food or searching for shelter.  Now we experiece long days of sitting at our desks, worrying about money, commuting, stressing over work projects, lead busy home lives and are usually trying to do each of these tasks perfectly.

So how does the body respond to long term exposure to high cortisol levels and stress over time?  The short and sweet answer is not well.  High cortisol levels over time cause:

  • poor sleep & focus
  • mood swings
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • decreased metabolism
  • increased appetite
  • cravings for carbs, sugar and salt
  • increased abdominal weight gain
  • reduced immune function (your constantly sick)
  • headaches
  • pain

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? What’s happening is called Adrenal Fatigue. In a nutshell, after maintaining elevated cortisol for so long, the adrenal glands (your cortisol producing glands)  can no longer cope with any additional stress. They resist the signals from the brain and fail to release more cortisol. Adrenal fatigue, or resistance, results in impairment of the ability to deal with any type of stress and causes a myriad of symptoms.

Stress & Weight Gain

As we saw above, elevated stress over long periods of time causes the adrenal glands to tire.  In regards to weight gain, it may not just be willpower that’s failing you when you’re craving sweets at night.  It could be your adrenal glands have been working on overdrive.  When stress is high,  sugar is released into the blood because your body thinks it needs free available energy to run from that bear.  However, if the actual fact is that we’re just sitting at our desk, our body will take that excess sugar and pack it away as fat for a rainy day.  The elevated cortisol will also cause cravings for sugar, salt and comfort foods which will cause blood sugar dysregulation.  In addition, there is tight link between your cortisol hormone and thyroid hormone. When cortisol is high, it interferes with appropriate thyroid function which can lead to lowered metabolism.  As you can see, elevated cortisol is the perfect recipe for weight gain!  It causes:

  • sugar and salt cravings
  • reduced thyroid function
  • interferes with metabolism
  • causes blood sugar dysregulation
  • increased hunger
  • increased fat storage
  • increased weight

How To Stress Less

Unfortunately there is no scenario where I can come over and just take your stress away.  Although there should be a Harry Potter spell for that “Accentus Prohibere” (wand wave).  I digress….Anyways….the main focus is to not only reduce your stress but also to make you more stress resilient.  So how do we attain this?

  1. Mindfulness: Is the practice of focusing on things that are happening in the present moment.  It allows time to purposefully pay attention and be aware of your surroundings, your emotions, your thoughts, and how your body feels. Mindfulness has been shown to reduces stress by decreasing the activity of the brain (amygdala)which switches on your stress response.  Mindfulness can help to build inner strength against future stressors.  Try the App Headspace, Yoga or Deep Breathing exercises
  2. Laughter: Research has shown that humour can modulate the effects of stress and reduce cortisol and increases endorphin release in the brain.  Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aids muscle relaxation.  Schedule a Laughter Break during your day. Check out one of my favourite go to videos (obviously it has dogs in it )
  3. Group Exercise:  Regular exercise decreases the elevated levels of cortisol in the bloodstream and reduces stress. Additionally, group workouts increase personal connection and increase the hormone oxytocin (our cuddle hormone) which has been shown to lower stress.  Try to schedule regular workouts to stay accountable.  Aim for 3 days week at least 30 minutes.  Check out a group fitness class and see how it feels! I’m a huge fan of Orange Theory Fitness or you could try a group class at YMCA or Goodlife.
  4. Sleep: Cortisol interferes with Melatonin production by disrupting REM sleep. This can lead to fatigue, lower immunity and weight gain.  Try to improve sleep hygiene such as developing a consistent sleeping pattern, restrict screen time 1hr before bed and aim for 7-8 hours sleep. You may also think about adding possible sleep aid supplements such as Magnesium, Passionflower or Lavender to help improve the sleep cycle and reduce your busy/worry brain.
  5. Adrenal Support : Help to reduce cortisol levels and support and strengthen your adrenal glands to improve adrenal gland function.  Specific vitamins and herbs can help to improve your stress resilience. Try adding supportive nutrients such as Vit C, B Complex and Magnesium or supportive herbs such as Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Ginseng, Passionflower, Schisandra.


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