In the modern age we come in to contact with a lot of stressful situations. For example, work, children, and other lifestyle factors, all of which can make us very stressed. But how would stress impact on your weight? There are no calories in stress are there?
No. But calories in vs calories out is not the whole story on fat loss. Complex hormones in our body play a huge role that can alter not only how much we eat, but where we store them and which ones we burn, sugar, fat or muscle.
I am going to try and make it very simple and help you understand how stress plays a huge role on weight. This will hopefully help give a whole new understanding about diet, exercise and your lifestyle.
From The Beginning
Before we delve in to anything specific I just want let you understand how over millions of years we have managed ‘stressful’ things such as food shortages, predators, ice ages, natural disasters and plenty of other situations.
If you just imagine the reaction you get when you slam the brakes on your car, or you have to swerve violently to avoid something on the road. You get butterflies and that age old ‘fight or flight’ response. This is what our bodies are designed to deal with, an acute stress response like running away from something dangerous. Whatever the situation, your physiological response is just the same.
What happens is that in a stressful situation, the brain sends signals to your adrenal glands (two pieces of endocrine tissue on top of your kidneys) to send out floods of hormonal signals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. The jobs of these hormones are to give the body the energy it needs as quickly as possible, so it can deal with the stressful situation, like running away. However, in modern day there is nothing to run from or need to escape these situations, so you just sit there with your adrenal hormones floating around your body. THIS IS NOT GOOD.
The main job of these adrenal hormones is to supply the body with sugar and fat to use as energy. This energy comes from a variety of tissue around the body. In other words stress burns fat, muscle and sugar from where it can when under acute ‘stressful’ circumstances. But when the stress is chronic or recurrent, fat is usually spared and muscle is taken for energy.
Normally, stressful situations would be followed by some intense movement or exercise (running away or fighting), which is what the body needs to release other hormones like growth hormone (HGH). These hormones are used to repair the muscle tissue damage and transfer the energy usage towards fat metabolism, whilst sparing our muscle. This then feeds back to the brain, which tells the adrenal glands to stop releasing the adrenal hormones and return to a resting state.
Chronic Stress – Where It All Goes Wrong
The real negative consequences in terms of health and weight start to happen when stress becomes chronic, recurrent or not followed by intense exercise. Chronic stress causes continuous cortisol (one of the body’s major stress hormones) secretion, which in turn induces serious changes in our physiology without us even being aware of it.
Two major changes occur to our hunger and cravings, as excess cortisol impacts hunger, whilst increasing our urge for sweets and fatty foods. This is very understandable when you think back to when our stress response was the result of having to run from a huge predator. The body is going to want the most energy dense foods that are going to keep you going for longer and increasing your chances of getting away and surviving. However, this is not good for our waistlines. If stress and the consequent urges for sweets and fatty foods are chronic, then the likelihood of eating highly calorific and nutritionally empty foods is going to be increased. As a result, this will lead to weight gain, digestive problems, gut problems, inflammation and further health complications that can all arise from stress and poor nutritional habits.
Cortisol & Insulin Is Not Good
As well as influencing the food we eat, chronic stress can also influences the type of calories we burn and where we store fat. Blood sugar levels are significantly raised when cortisol levels are in high amounts, due to the demands that it places on the liver to up regulate glucose production and increase blood sugar. To counter these high blood sugar levels, the body releases insulin to lower blood sugar and push it back in to the cells. So essentially, cortisol and insulin are a bit like two ends of a see-saw by working back and forth to try and help control stress.
The negative effects of insulin are paramount, as insulin often signals the storage of fat. Therefore, when cortisol is in the presence of insulin, the energy that is utilised is likely to come more from muscle due to the insulin acting to preserve fat stores. Meaning you will end up losing muscle tissue, which will damage your metabolism whilst having larger fat stores.
These fat stores are particularly stored around the belly, as this is an ancient adaptation that means due to the liver being situated around the belly, fat is more likely to be stored there so it is easier for the liver to access a fuel source to draw from. This then explains it when you often see those who lead very stressful lives have greater amounts of belly fat, compared to arms or legs.
How Do We Stop It?
So as you can see stress can play a huge role on weight and body composition without us even realising it. However, it can be halted with some simple strategies.
The main ways to halt the effects of stress is to get great sleep, intense exercise and adequate protein intake are the only known stimuli to reliably increase growth hormone in men and women.
Growth hormone negates the effect of insulin and cortisol by countering the negative effects of insulin. However, we are a nation that brags about not getting enough sleep, not eating enough protein and often doing low intensity exercise. Thus we find it hard to overcome the effects of stress on our bodies.
So my tips for you to overcome stress are:
- Do not fast. Eating normally will blunt the increasing levels of cortisol that can occur when fasting.
- Exercise intensely, and exercise with weights. Intense exercise will counter the negative effects of stress by increasing the release of growth hormone to tackle it.
- Eat protein, not sugar. Increased protein levels will block the muscle wasting effects of cortisol, whilst also countering the effect of insulin.