Weight gain and stress

Why We Gain Weight When We’re Stressed—and How Not To

Have you ever found yourself mindlessly eating a tub of ice cream while you brood about your latest romantic rejection — or eating a hamburger and fries in front of your computer as you furiously try to make a work deadline? Perhaps you’re a busy mom, eating cookies in your car as you shuttle the kids back and forth to a slew of activities. Or you’re a small business owner desperately trying to make ends meet when you suddenly realize your waistline has expanded.

If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, you’re not alone — and it’s probably not your fault. Stress that goes on for a long period of time is a triple whammy for weight. It increases our appetites, makes us hold onto the fat, and interferes with our willpower to implement a healthy lifestyle.

Five Stress-Related Causes of Weight Gain

Below are the five major reasons stress leads to weight gain — and four great research-based coping strategies you can use to fight back.

1. Hormones

When your brain detects the presence of a threat, no matter if it is a snake in the grass, a grumpy boss, or a big credit card bill, it triggers the release of a cascade of chemicals, including adrenaline, CRH, and cortisol. Your brain and body prepare to handle the threat by making you feel alert, ready for action and able to withstand an injury.

In the short-term, adrenaline helps you feel less hungry as your blood flows away from the internal organs and to your large muscles to prepare for “fight or flight.” However, once the effects of adrenaline wear off, cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” hangs around and starts signaling the body to replenish your food supply.

Fighting off wild animals, like our ancestors did, used up a lot of energy, so their bodies needed more stores of fat and glucose. Today’s human, who sits on the couch worrying about how to pay the bill or works long hours at the computer to make the deadline, does not work off much energy at all dealing with the stressor! Unfortunately, we are stuck with a neuroendocrine system that didn’t get the update, so your brain is still going to tell you to reach for that plate of cookies anyway.

2. Belly Fat

In the days when our ancestors were fighting off tigers and famine, their bodies adapted by learning to store fat supplies for the long haul. The unfortunate result for you and me is that when we are chronically stressed by life crises and work-life demands, we are prone to getting an extra layer of “visceral fat” deep in our bellies.

Your belly has an ample supply of blood vessels and cortisol receptors to make the whole process flow more efficiently. The downside is that excess belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. The fat releases chemicals triggering inflammation, which increases the likelihood that we will develop heart disease or diabetes. And it can make it more difficult to fit into those lovely jeans you splurged on, leading to more stress about money wasted! Unfortunately, excess cortisol also slows down your metabolism, because your body wants to maintain an adequate supply of glucose for all that hard mental and physical work dealing with the threat.

3. Anxiety

When we have a surge of adrenaline as part of our fight/flight response, we get fidgety and activated. Adrenaline is the reason for the “wired up” feeling we get when we’re stressed. While we may burn off some extra calories fidgeting or running around cleaning because we can’t sit still, anxiety can also trigger “emotional eating.” Overeating or eating unhealthy foods in response to stress or as a way to calm down is a very common response.

In the most recent American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” survey, a whopping 40 percent of respondents reported dealing with stress in this way, while 42 percent reported watching television for more than 2 hours a day to deal with stress.

Being a couch potato also increases the temptation to overeat and is inactive, which means that those extra calories aren’t getting burned off. Anxiety can also make you eat more “mindlessly” as you churn around worrying thoughts in your head, not even focusing on the taste of the food, how much you’ve eaten, or when you are feeling full. When you eat mindlessly, you will likely eat more, yet feel less satisfied.

4. Cravings and Fast Food

When we are chronically stressed, we crave “comfort foods,” such as a bag of potato chips or a tub of ice cream. These foods tend to be easy to eat, highly processed, and high in fat, sugar, or salt.

We crave these foods for both biological and psychological reasons. Stress may mess up our brain’s reward system or cortisol may cause us to crave more fat and sugar.

We also may have memories from childhood, such as the smell of freshly baked cookies, that lead us to associate sweet foods with comfort.

When we are stressed, we also may be more likely to drive through the fast food place, rather than taking the time and mental energy to plan and cook a meal. Americans are less likely to cook and eat dinner at home than people from many other countries, and they also work more hours.

Working in urban areas may mean long, jammed commutes, which both increase stress and interfere with willpower because we are hungrier when we get home later. A University of Pennsylvania research study showed, in laboratory mice, that being “stressed” by exposure to the smell of a predator lead the mice to eat more high-fat food pellets, when given the choice of eating these instead of normal feed.

5. Less Sleep

Do you ever lie awake at night worrying about paying the bills or about who will watch your kids when you have to go to work? According to the APA’s “Stress in America” survey, more than 40 percent of us lie awake at night as a result of stress. Research shows that worry is a major cause of insomnia. Our minds are overactive and won’t switch off. We may also lose sleep because of pulling overnights to cram for exams or writing until the early hours.

Stress causes decreased blood sugar, which leads to fatigue. If you drink coffee or caffeinated soft drinks to stay awake, or alcohol to feel better, your sleep cycle will be even more disrupted. Sleep is also a powerful factor influencing weight gain or loss. Lack of sleep may disrupt the functioning of ghrelin and leptin—chemicals that control appetite. We also crave carbs when we are tired or grumpy from lack of sleep.

Finally, not getting our precious zzz’s erodes our willpower and ability to resist temptation. In one study, overweight/obese dieters were asked to follow a fixed calorie diet and assigned to get either 5-1/2 or 8-1/2 hours of sleep a night (in a sleep lab). Those with sleep deprivation lost substantially less weight.

How to Minimize Weight Gain When You’re Stressed

1. Exercise

Aerobic exercise has a one-two punch. It can decrease cortisol and trigger the release of chemicals that relieve pain and improve mood. It can also help speed your metabolism so you burn off the extra indulgences.

2. Eat Mindfully

Mindful Eating programs train you in meditation, which helps you cope with stress, and change your consciousness around eating. You learn to slow down and tune in to your sensory experience of the food, including its sight, texture or smell. You also learn to tune into your subjective feelings of hunger or fullness, rather than eating just because it’s mealtime or because there is food in front of you. A well-designed study of binge-eaters showed that participating in a Mindful Eating program led to fewer binges and reduced depression.

3. Find Rewarding Activities Unrelated to Food

Taking a hike, reading a book, going to a yoga class, getting a massage, patting your dog, or making time for friends and family can help to relieve stress without adding on the pounds. Although you may feel that you don’t have time for leisure activities with looming deadlines, taking time to relieve stress helps you to feel refreshed, lets you think more clearly, and improves your mood, so you are less likely to overeat.

4. Write in a Journal

Writing down your experiences and reactions or your most important goals keeps your hands busy and your mind occupied, so you’re less likely to snack on unhealthy foods. Writing can give you insight into why you’re feeling so stressed and highlight ways of thinking or expectations of yourself that may be increasing the pressure you feel. Writing down your healthy eating and exercise goals may make you more conscious of your desire to live a healthier lifestyle and intensify your commitment. Research studies have also shown that writing expressively or about life goals can improve both mood and health.

Resources:

Dr. Elissa Eppel, a psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center has conducted pioneering research on stress, eating, and weight gain. for a summary of her work and a talk by Dr. Eppel.

Dr. Michelle May, a family physician, author, and recovered yo-yo dieter has developed a Mindful Eating program to help combat emotional and stress-related eating. for more information at her Mindful Eating blog.

Read my other post on mindful eating: The 5 Best Ways to Manage Your Weight and Eating.

Learn about why we crave sugar and its effects on our health: Why Our Brains Love Sugar — and Why Our Bodies Don’t.

Have you found that despite everything you’re doing to improve your nutrition and fitness you’re still not reaching your goals? Stress and weight gain are inextricably linked and could be the underlying reason why. Whether the stressor is real or an imagined threat, our bodies will experience the same physical response. Your heart will start racing whether a lion is chasing you or you’re about to miss your flight.

Stress can be triggered when we’ve set expectations that are too high to meet comfortably. Imagine you’re a mom trying to get the kids to soccer practice and you’re running late; you check your daily to-dos and realize you don’t even have time to start the first one. Or, you’ve got a presentation in an hour that you haven’t started preparing for. Whatever the stressor, it’s real to you and your body reacts in turn.

Why we need cortisol?

Cortisol gets a bad rap for being the “fat-storing hormone” but it isn’t all bad, in fact, we need it for survival. In times of stress, cortisol increases blood sugar, raises blood pressure, and suppresses the immune system — boosting your ability to run from danger. Why is this boost useful on a normal, stress-free day? Cortisol levels increase when it’s time to wake up and get going in the morning, then decrease as it gets closer to bedtime.

Say you’re walking along, minding your own business and suddenly that lion from earlier — yes, we know most of you won’t encounter lions in your day-to-day life, but let’s get imaginative here — pops out from the bushes. Your fight or flight system is activated, and your adrenal glands pump out stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and as a result glucose (our primary energy source) is released into our bloodstream, so your brain is prepared to respond in the blink of an eye, to get you the heck out of there!

As the likelihood of running into a lion is slim, those perceived mental and emotional stressors rarely require a physical response, so unused glucose and lingering stress hormones remain in circulation longer. Over time, the repeated stress response takes a toll on your body.

Stress and weight gain

Once the real/perceived threat has subsided, the adrenaline high wears off and cortisol kicks into top gear to replenish your energy supply as fast as possible. Hello, sugar cravings! Your body is designed to store energy as a protective mechanism, particularly after stressful situations — mainly in the form of visceral fat on and around the belly. The downside is that this belly fat is unhealthy and difficult to get rid of. In addition to weight loss struggles, cortisol serves up a double whammy by slowing down the metabolism.

It’s a case of the what came first, the chicken or the egg, research shows a correlation between weight and cortisol levels but is unclear which one is the cause and which one is the result. It’s most likely a combination of the two. A recent study shows that elevated cortisol levels overtime results in weight gain and obesity, meaning you’ll gain weight due to stress and have a harder time losing it.

“Stressed” is “desserts” spelled backward

Increased cortisol is associated with an increase in blood sugar level, and after this blood sugar spike comes a drop, then sugar cravings — cue the comfort foods. Think about the foods you reach for when you feel stressed. Are ice cream, chocolate, and pizza coming to mind? The foods we crave tend to be highly processed and high in fat, sugar, and salt — all of which are very easy to digest and absorb.

Another reason why comfort foods help us temporarily feel better is that they provide our brains with a boost of the happy neurotransmitter, serotonin. Feeling overwhelmed can make you want to reach for comfort foods or emotionally eat. The bottom line is that stress can impact you both physiologically and psychologically, hence the need for sweets and junk food cravings.

Does stress cause weight gain or loss?

We just discussed the link between stress and weight gain; however, some people experience stress-induced weight-loss. How come? Everyone is different. We all respond to stressful situations in our own way. The increase in adrenaline will initially most likely kill your appetite, but the long-term effects of chronic stress tend to lead to increased appetite and weight gain. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to eat when you’re stressed, this could be related to digestion. One of the effects of stress hormones is to redirect blood away from your gut and to your limbs, which can help you move quickly. You may also have nervous energy and the urge to clean or fidget, which expends extra calories and leads to stress-related weight loss.

Stress and weight management

Just like a car that is driven fast without proper fuel, if you abuse your stress response, you may experience burnout or adrenal fatigue. Read on for our tips to minimize burnout as well as prevent stress and weight gain.

Sleep

Stress causes us to lay awake at night, and the lack of sleep causes stress, a never-ending cycle. When we lack sleep, we crave quick energy such as sweets. Lack of sleep may also interfere with our appetite hormones, ghrelin, and leptin.

Improve your sleep hygiene:

  • 2 to 4 hours before going to bed:

    Avoid strenuous exercise and large meals

  • 1 hour before bed:

    Dim lights to increase melatonin

  • 30 minutes before bed:

    Put away your electronic devices and screens

Exercise

Exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress. It decreases cortisol and releases endorphins and other chemicals that boost your mood. Be sure to listen to your body. If you’ve been chronically stressed or over-exercising, take a break. Intense and acute exercise (HIIT, bodybuilding) can temporarily raise cortisol levels.

  • 8fit app exercises

  • Grab an exercise buddy to keep you accountable and smiling through your workout

  • If it’s time to take it easy, take a walk, do yoga, or stretch

Mindfulness

When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. Living mindfully can help you clear your mind, make you more aware of what you’re feeling, and curb cravings.

  • Take 5-10 minutes every day to practice deep breathing, yoga or listening to soothing music

  • Journal to make sense of feelings and thoughts related to stressful events. This can also help you brainstorm solutions

  • When things feel overwhelming it can be useful to get an outside perspective; reach out to friends, family, and therapists or counselors to share what you’re going through

Nutrition

Focus on regulating your blood sugar by including nutrients that help support the adrenal glands and your hormones:

  • Eat a balanced, minimally processed meal or snack, every 3-4 hours

  • Include fiber, protein, and whole foods

  • Focus on vitamin B5, magnesium, and vitamin C

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When you’re stressed AF, it makes sense that eating well and working out regularly aren’t high on your to-do list. And naturally, that would make you more likely to gain weight.

But it turns out, stress alone can make the number on the scale go up. It might sound weird and kind of unlikely, but Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., M.P.H., instructor of medicine and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, says this can—and does—happen. “A large majority of my patients will gain weight when they have stress,” she says.

When you’re stressed out, your body wants to defend itself, so it starts to retain body weight, she explains. Basically, even if you’re exercising regularly and eating well the way you always have, you can still gain weight because your body is trying to ward off an unseen threat. “It’s usually with chronic stress that you’ll see this,” Cody Stanford says. (Think: stress associated with losing your job or going through a terrible breakup, not the kind that comes from having a bad day at work.)

“There’s a certain threshold by which people can identify when they feel that burden of stress, beyond daily life stress,” she says. “Usually when that threshold has been reached is when we see the battle with weight regulation.”

Cody Stanford says this is “very, very common,” which is why she asks her patients about their stress levels upfront, along with their diet, exercise habits, and sleep. “That’s how important it is,” she says. If a patient is battling chronic stress, Cody Stanford says, they typically have to realize that preventing weight gain is going to be tough until they can become less frazzled on a daily basis.

Of course, feeling stressed out also makes you want to eat. Peter LePort, M.D., a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Center for Obesity at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., says plenty of people stress-eat when they don’t address the root of why they’re feeling so frazzled. Stress can skew your perception of things, so it’s possible to think you’re eating and working out the same but in reality eating more and working out less, he says.

Regardless of the reason for your stressy weight gain, LePort says, it’s crucial to get stress under control in order to keep your weight in check—otherwise, you’ll just see the number on the scale continue to creep up. And then, Cody Stanford says, it can be tough to get it back down.“What happens is that you get to this new set point, and your body becomes comfortable at that point,” she says. “Your body may see that as the new normal, and getting that weight off may be a significant struggle.”

Luckily your weight isn’t totally screwed if you’re under stress—you just need to do what you can to minimize the intensity in your life. “If you’re recognizing stress as an issue and it’s something you can intervene in, do it as quickly and briskly as possible to minimize the likelihood it will impact your weight and overall health,” Cody Stanford says. That may mean finding a new, less stressful job or finally ending a relationship that you know is no good for you—whatever it is, cutting out the stress is going to make it a hell of a lot easier to keep your weight where you want it.

Ask the experts

Does stress cause weight gain?

Doctor’s response

This is an interesting question. Some people do tend to gain weight when under stress, but the cause of this weight gain is likely a mix of hormonal and psychological factors. The body has a system of hormonal checks and balances that may actually promote weight gain when you’re stressed out.

The so-called “stress hormone” cortisol is released in the body during times of stress along with the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine that constitute the “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat. Following the stressful or threatening event, epinephrine and norepinephrine levels return to normal while cortisol levels can remain elevated over a longer time period. In fact, cortisol levels can remain persistently elevated in the body when a person is subjected to chronic stress.

Cortisol has many actions in the body, and one ultimate goal of cortisol secretion is the provision of energy for the body. Cortisol stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, in addition to stimulating insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The end result of these actions is an increase in appetite. Therefore, chronic stress, or poorly managed stress, may lead to elevated cortisol levels that stimulate your appetite, with the end result being weight gain or difficulty losing unwanted pounds.

Cortisol not only promotes weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Researchers have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips. This fat deposition has been referred to as “toxic fat,” since abdominal fat deposition is strongly correlated with the development of cadiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes.

Whether or not your stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, with some persons being innately more “reactive” to stressful events. Studies of women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion showed that these women also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol. Another study confirmed that women who stored their excess fat in the abdominal area had higher cortisol levels and reported more lifestyle stress than women who stored fat primarily in the hips.

Experts agree that stress management is a critical part of weight-loss regimens, particularly in those who have elevated cortisol levels. Exercise is the best and fastest method for weight loss in this case, since exercise leads to the release of endorphins, which have natural stress-fighting properties and can lower cortisol levels. Activities such as yoga and meditation can also help lower your stress hormone levels. To effectively reduce elevated cortisol due to stress, lifestyle changes are essential.

In addition to possible hormonal causes, many people eat in an attempt to fulfill psychological needs when under stress, which may be another reason some people gain weight when experiencing stress.

Stress can make you fat. And it’s not entirely because you stress eat, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that chronic stress may pump up the rate in which new fat cells are formed, according to a report published Tuesday in Cell Metabolism. It all comes down to levels of hormones called glucocorticoids, which are produced in abundance when we’re stressed.

When glucocorticoids are constantly high, as is the case when we’re chronically stressed out, it can boost the chances for a certain type of cell to morph into fat cells, the study found. And that could bump up our weight, said Mary Teruel, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University.

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It’s long been known that rises in the stress hormone cortisol can lead to weight gain in humans, but the assumption has been that people were just eating more because the hormone stimulates appetite.

Suspecting something else might be going on, the Stanford researchers studied the effects of glucocorticoids — a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal gland — both in individual cells and in mice.

Under a microscope the researchers saw how the hormone, when kept at constant high levels, caused the development of fat cells. Intriguingly, if the levels rose and fell, there was no impact.

And that was true even if glucocorticoid levels were extremely high, but for a limited period of time.

Most significant — the mice with 24-hour, higher-than-normal glucocorticoid hormone levels saw a doubling of fat.

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“So basically, it’s not about food intake,” she said. “It’s about timing.”

While mice and people are certainly different, both are greatly influenced by circadian rhythms and both produce glucocorticoids in response to stress. Although the research was done in the lab, it’s likely human body would react in a similar fashion to the mice to continuous high levels of glucocorticoids, Teruel said.

“However, more experiments would be needed to test this,” she said.

The increase in fat is likely related to the fact that under normal circumstances glucocorticoids wax and wane with our circadian clocks, Teruel said. So our bodies are designed to ignore short-term fluctuations of these hormones.

But everything is thrown out of whack when levels stay high — as they will if a person’s stress doesn’t diminish, even after the day’s work is done.

“So maybe it’s OK to get stressed during the day, but not at night,” Teruel said.

The implication is that if we could find ways to modulate our stress in the evenings and at night, it might not affect our weight.

What helps reduce chronic stress?

That makes sense to Dr. Anthony Heaney, an endocrinologist and an associate professor of medicine and neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine.

“It would suggest that any method people can use to beat stress could be of benefit,” Heaney said. “I think the challenge is for people who are stressed often. I don’t think jumping into a 30-minute yoga or Pilates class will be enough to address that.”

The kinds of activities that might help are those “that need 100 percent of our attention,” Heaney said.

That could mean a game of tennis over running on a treadmill, for example.

“Certain activities we do are not absorbing enough to distract from stress, Heaney said. “Whereas jogging might be a good healthy sport, you can sometimes still ruminate and be stressed because it doesn’t require your sole attention.”

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Why does stress lead to weight gain? Study sheds light

New research, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, may have found the reason why chronic exposure to stress is so intimately linked with obesity. The answer lies in the relationship between fat cells and the timing of stress hormones.

Share on PinterestThe fact that stress results in weight gain may be known to many, but new research shows why and how this occurs.

Researchers led by Mary Teruel, assistant professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, were puzzled by an otherwise natural — and well-known— process through which our body produces fat cells.

In the human body, so-called precursor, or progenitor cells — that is, the intermediate state between an undifferentiated stem cell and a fully differentiated one — turn into fat cells, leading to weight gain.

A healthy person turns no more than 1 percent of their precursor cells into fat cells, and does so when triggered by hormones called glucocorticoids.

Glucocorticoids are natural steroid hormones produced by the human body to alleviate inflammation. As Teruel and colleagues explain in their paper, a person’s glucocorticoids levels naturally rise and fall throughout the day, a cycle regulated by our circadian rhythms.

But these hormones can also be boosted by external stimuli, such as short- or long-term stress. The senior investigator of the new research, however, found this dynamic intriguing.

“Why aren’t we drowning in fat every time glucocorticoid levels go high in the morning due to normal circadian rhythms or when our glucocorticoid levels spike when we exercise or go from a warm building out into the cold?” Teruel asked herself.

“And why is losing the normal rhythm of glucocorticoid secretion — such as in conditions of chronic stress, jet lag, and sleep disruption in shift-workers — so linked to obesity?”

Such questions prompted Teruel and her colleagues to embark on the new research.

How do glucocorticoids affect fat cells?

To find out the answers, the scientists carried out several experiments. In the first one, the team bathed precursor fat cells in a cocktail of glucocorticoids in “rhythmic pulses” over a period of 4 days.

They counted how many progenitor cells turned into fat cells, and found that one 48-hour long pulse of the hormones caused most cells to turn into fat cells, whereas shorter pulses led to minimal cell differentiation.

Teruel and colleagues wanted to delve deeper, so they zoomed in on the molecular mechanisms through which progenitor cells can “tell” when to turn into fat cells. The scientists were intrigued as to what makes the progenitor cells ignore short pulses but respond to longer ones.

To solve the mystery, they used single-cell live imaging to track the activity of a protein that is known to correlate with the differentiation and maturity of a fat cell: PPAR-gamma (PPARG).

Tracking this protein in thousands of cells over the course of several days and using computer modeling revealed that there are two types of feedback that help the progenitor cells to ignore the normal circadian cycle of glucocorticoids and filter out only long hormonal pulses.

Specifically, the authors write, “this circadian filtering requires fast and slow positive feedback to PPARG.” Building on their previous research, the scientists also found other proteins that mediate a 34-hour feedback loop that enables PPARG to continue to accumulate, leading to more fat cells.

“Now we know the circadian code that controls the switch, and we’ve identified key molecules that are involved,” Teruel says.

Finally, the scientists had to test if this newly identified circadian code worked the same way in mammals. So, over the course of 21 days, they increased glucocorticoid levels in a group of mice and compared their weight with that of a control group of rodents.

The experiment revealed that the glucocorticoid-boosted mice gained double the weight as the group of control mice. This, the scientists found, was due not only to the production of new fat cells, but also to the growth of already existing ones.

Continuous stress can lead to weight gain

The findings, says Teruel, ” why treatments with glucocorticoid drugs, which are often essential for people with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma to even function, are so linked with obesity, and ways in which such treatments can be given safely without the common side effects of weight gain and bone loss.”

Additionally, the senior investigator notes how the research illuminates the process of stress-induced weight gain in people, as well as offering clues for how to control it.

“Yes, the timing of your stress does matter,” she says. “Since conversion of precursor cells into fat cells occurs through a bistable switch, it means you can control the process with pulsing.”

“Our results suggest that even if you get significantly stressed or treat your rheumatoid arthritis with glucocorticoids, you won’t gain weight,” continues Teruel, “as long as stress or glucocorticoid treatment happens only during the day.

“But if you experience chronic, continuous stress or take glucocorticoids at night, the resulting loss of normal circadian glucocorticoid oscillations will result in significant weight gain.”

Mary Teruel

“When we have a bout of stress, we have adrenaline release, which releases glucose from your system to facilitate physical activity,” she explains. “At the same time, you get the release of another hormone called cortisol. This has a longer-term action.”

“The function of cortisol is to prompt us to replace the energy we would have lost had we engaged in physical activity – and it does this by making us hungry. Not only does it increase our appetite, it also draws us towards calorie-dense foods,” she explains.

Meaning we’re more likely to reach for the biscuit barrel than the fruit bowl in times of tension.

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A vicious circle

Unfortunately, long-term stress can also interfere with our circadian rhythm – our natural sleep-wake cycle.

“Normally cortisol levels start rising early in the morning before we get up,” explains Coffey. “This gives us the energy to get out of bed. Levels usually start reducing as the day goes on and are really low at night. However, in response to ongoing stress, cortisol levels remain high; and because they’re high it has the effect of increasing appetite and cravings for often unhealthy food.”

This excess cortisol can also affect our sleep patterns.

“If cortisol is too high at night, it can stop you sleeping well, and if you’re not sleeping well other hormones that control appetite – ghrelin and leptin – also become out of balance, again increasing your appetite.

“Worse, when we give in to those cravings for sugary snacks, our body responds by releasing insulin to stabilise our blood-sugar levels. Unfortunately, insulin is the trigger your body uses to start laying down fat.”

Finally we all know that when we’re tired, it’s harder to resist reaching for the biscuit tin.

“When you’re sleep-deprived, another thing that can happen is you lose your self-control to an extent; you’re more impulsive,” explains Coffey

Breaking the cycle

One way to break the cycle of stress-induced weight gain is to control our environment. Try to limit the amount of temptation you have in your home, and have a range of healthy snacks to choose from. Plan, or even prepare, meals in advance if you have a busy week ahead.

But the most effective way to deal with stress-induced weight gain is to work on our stress management.

“People often focus on the thing that’s making them stressed, but sometimes we don’t have full control over this – for example if it’s a work issue,” explains Coffey. “A better way might be to learn to deal with our reactions, rather than the environment or situation itself.”

Tackling stress long-term should mean that your cravings for calorie-rich snacks lessen; your hormones have a chance to balance out and, hopefully, your waistband will feel a little looser.

So, don’t stress. Whilst being under pressure can cause weight gain, with a little self-care and some forward-planning you can break free from the cycle and regain control.

A recent research study found over 75% of people experience stress every day!

Chronic stress is not fun to deal with, but did you know it can also affect your weight? That’s right, stress and weight gain or weight loss are linked.

When you are stressed your body goes into “fight or flight” mode which changes your hormonal balance. You don’t need to be running from a stampede to enter fight or flight mode. Even everyday events like traffic and stress at work can cause you to have that physiological response.

The Correlation Between Stress and Weight

Recent research suggests that chronic stress can result in:

  • High blood pressure
  • Changes in your brain
  • Weight gain

When you are stressed out, you are more likely to overeat and less likely to get enough sleep and exercise. Stress causes your body to release cortisol, a hormone that can produce a build-up of fatty tissue and can cause weight gain. Cortisol increases both your appetite and the amount of fat the body stores. By recognizing your stressors, and engaging in a few simple relaxation techniques, you can learn to reduce your body’s natural stress response.

  • Cortisol is released in response to stress and increases your blood sugar.
  • Chronic stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels.
  • A relationship between increased cortisol levels and obesity has been found.

How To Control Stress and Weight

Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or even simple breathing exercises can help your body counter the stress response. Exercise has also been shown to decrease stress levels substantially.

The next time you are feeling stressed, take a moment to breathe a few deep breaths and try to get some exercise into your schedule that day. Not only will you feel better mentally, but your body will be able to reduce the amount of cortisol produced which will limit your body’s fat storage and help curb any thoughts of over-eating. Staying fit and trim does start in your head!

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  • The 1 reason you should avoid starvation diets
  • How to say goodbye to “yo-yoing” forever
  • The latest research about ways to truly get healthier, shed 15 pounds, and get back to living your best life

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Science Source(s):

Hair Cortisol and Adiposity in a Population‐Based Sample of 2,527 Men and Women Aged 54 to 87 Years. Obesity 2017

Feb 16, 2019 / Adiponectin, Adrenal Repair, Belly fat, Cortisol, Cravings, Detox, Energy, Exercise and Strength, Fat-loss, Food Sensitivities, Hormones and Anti-Aging, Inflammation, Infrared Sauna, Marine Collagen, Metabolism, Nutrition, Stress ALL THE WAYS THE HORMONE DIET TACKLES STRESS BELLY

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing for an author based in New York and her article that was published on Livestrong.com. After sending her my notes, I realized our work together had formed a great summary of all of the ways my baby, The Hormone Diet, truly provides the complete fix for “stress belly”. Even though this book was written 10 years ago, and my last just two ago, her questions prompted great food-for-thought and a new perspective on how to re-structure my message after so many years. While I have known from personal and clinical experience that the dreaded stress belly has a whole lot more to do with our hormones, our health and how we exercise – than simply our diet – perhaps this will now help you to understand too…

The Hormones That Drive Stress Belly

Excess Cortisol:Not only does excess cortisol, our long term stress hormone, increase appetite and cravings, but it also causes a loss of memory, muscle mass, libido, and bone density. Stress causes abdominal fat – even in people who are otherwise thin. So, it pays to buy cbd edibles as they help you to tackle stress symptoms. Hundreds of studies have established the link between high cortisol and more belly fat, as well as increased storage of abdominal fat. In my 20 years of medical practice, I have seen that most patients, unfortunately, adopt behaviors that only serve to make the problem worse. This is especially true for women 30 – 70 years of age who, more often than not, miss meals or excessively restrict calories, over-exercise (too long, too hard, too often) and tend to choose the wrong types of exercise like spinning, running or bootcampclasses, which spike cortisol and furthermuscle loss. Cortisol can also rise from missing the essential mid-afternoon protein-rich meal, and with complete avoidance of starchy carbohydrates or fruit, like Keto-Dieter’s do, as well as any form of intermittent fasting that is repeated daily (i.e. the 16-8 approach).
High cortisol is linked to depression, anxiety, sleep disruption and simply feeling dissatisfied or overwhelmed. For all these symptoms perhaps try black fire strain to deal with depression, anxiety, and stress. These concerns and mental states seriously add inches right around our waistline. Also, If your blood sugar levels are on a rollercoaster all day, you can bet your cortisol is as well. I tell my patients that it is almost impossible for me to restore their cortisol balance if they skip breakfast (I encourage them to eat within an hour of rising), and continue to miss a protein meal between 2 – 4 pm. Their last meal in the evening should be finished by 7 p.m.

Once patients truly embrace this eating pattern, I see blood cortisol levels reduce – right along with their belly button circumference – even if no change is noted on the scale. This is because these patients often gain muscle while losing belly fat and as an added bonus, their energy and sleep improves – and cravings always disappear.
High cortisol causes belly fat because it increases insulin resistance and makes you more at risk of weight gain – especially with too many carbs or the wrong carbs for you. You will know when you are in this hormonal and metabolic state because you will be constantly hungry and craving. Cortisol also causes a drop in growth hormone; is linked to low testosterone in men; and inhibits the function of thyroid hormone, the master of our metabolic rate. And the final bad news about cortisol: it is proven to make us hungry for high-fat, high-carb comfort foods that perpetuate belly fat, even after we are full.
Insulin: Released mostly in response to the carbohydrates in our diet, it is one of the main reasons why carbs fuel more belly fat with age. Weight gain around the abdomen, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low good cholesterol, food cravings and difficulty losing weight are all associated with high insulin. It’s a catch 22 – because the higher your insulin levels, the greater your accumulation of belly fat and extra fat around the waist in turn increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease (and of course, an expanding waistline). Your belly fat makes you carb sensitive. So, if you suspect your insulin is imbalanced, increase your healthy fat and protein intake while lowering your intake of all starchy carbohydrates – which should be restricted to your evening meal and a serving about the size of your fist. I even suggest avoiding the healthy carbs like sweet potato, brown rice, hummus and chickpeas, if you have more than 15 pounds to lose because they are higher in impact carbs (those that impact your blood sugar).
Estrogen:Just as too much estrogen is known to fuel weight gain, so does a dip in estrogen too. Menopausal women are more weight gain due to a number of hormonal changes at this phase but some studies suggest the body reacts to the loss of estrogen from the ovaries by trying to produce more estrogen from fat cells. In order to make estrogen, the cells have to store more fat, which in turn triggers fat gain. According to researchers from the University of Maryland, an enzyme that breaks down fat into its separate components for uptake by fat cells was more active in postmenopausal women compared with peri-menopausal women. Another cause of stress belly in older women – serotonin the happy hormone becomes less effective in the brain as estrogen declines. That increases carb cravings and belly fat.
Testosterone: Testosterone levels decrease in men as their excess abdominal fat causes it to be converted to estrogen and also if they are under high stress. As estrogen levels rise, so does the tendency to accumulate more abdominal fat, fueling the situation. Testosterone levels tend to taper off with aging, obesity andstress, but today men are experiencing testosterone decline much earlier in life. Men with low testosterone are more likely to develop a potbelly and other body fat.
Growth Hormone: Growth hormone is essential to maintaining healthy bones, skin andhair, as well as strong, lean muscle mass. Beyond a natural decrease with aging, conditions like sleep deprivation, diabetes, hypothyroidism, some cases of osteoporosis, anorexia or insulin resistance can cause levels to decline more rapidly. By the time we’re 40 nearly everyone is deficient in growth hormone, and at 80 our levels have diminished by at least 90%. Low growth hormone is linked to abdominal fat in both men and women, while replacement of low levels asbeen linked to an increase in lean body mass and a decrease in belly fat.

Other Than Hormonal Issues, Are Any Other Physiological Factors Related to Stress Belly?

YES!
– Any type of digestive issue –all aspects of gut health impact your ability to lose stress belly and to achieve optimal hormonal balance. Digestive factors include: bacterial balance (microbiome), fiber, probiotics, inflammation of the gut lining, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, leaky gut syndrome, etc.
– Chronic stress –related to any cause emotional, physical, financial, spiritual, etc…and any real or imagined stress causes the exact same reaction – cortisol levels rise.
– Compromisedliver function– such as fatty liver, elevation of liver enzymes, which indicates inflammation and insulin resistance. Keep this in mind: your liver is your major metabolic organ because it is one of the places insulin does its work and it is directly involved in fat metabolism.
– Immune imbalance – linked to breast implant disease, autoimmune conditions, inflammation, allergies and other signs of immune disruption.
– Sleep Concerns – failing to sleep enough, at the right times, naked, and in total darkness may cause hormonal imbalance.
– Lack of sex – can further the hormonal imbalance that causes more belly fat and can increase looking for a fix from food rather than…… – Your muscle mass– having enough muscle for your frame is vitally important for maintaining metabolism, the ability to beat belly fat, to maintain strength and energy.

What Should You Avoid Ingesting to Prevent Stress Belly? Why?

I have used a two-step nutrition process with my patients for 20 years and it is the same process outlined in my #1 Bestselling Book The Hormone Dietand The New York TimesBestseller, The Supercharged Hormone Diet.

Within the first three weeks of either of these plans, all of your food-based culprits are identified. In weeks one and two you will completely avoid certain foods because they cause stress and immune imbalance, including:
•Inflammatory and allergenic foods –– all grains including those with and without gluten, all dairy products, citrus foods (except lemon and lime), red meats, processed meats, deep fried foods, all bad oils (we remove these forever because of inflammation), anything containing corn, and peanuts andpeanut products (with the exception of a few brands of protein bars,peanuts should be removed good because of bad oils and aflatoxin)
• Insulinogenic foods – anything containing sugar, artificial sweeteners, all grains, potatoes, and alcohol.

During week three, you will introduce some of the foods from my to-be-avoided list, but only those that do not have the potential to fuel stress belly simply because they are high-fibre, low-carb or protein-rich. Take home message here is that if you do not experience bloating, swelling, fatigue, inflammatory symptoms like joint pain, etc. or other symptoms related to your mood or headaches, when trying each food separately daily, then I believe it is safe to conclude the tested food will probably not further the accumulation of your belly fat. Why? Because, this process, in essence, identifies your food sensitivities. It is the most powerful part of any detox – as it allows you to gain the insight and to make an enlightened decision about the foods you select to eat and, ultimately, how you are going to look and feel.

So you will monitor your symptoms while you will introduce the following foods, one day at a time:
• Low fat, high protein dairy like swiss cheese slices, Greek yogurt
• Kamut and rye – as sources of gluten – if you react to both you are most likely gluten sensitive
• Grass-fed beef
• Oranges/grapefruit

If you want to complete the detox, you canpurchase my detox kit, which comes with a free PDF of the dietary instructions and how to monitor your body pH, which effects your hormones, inflammation, energy and wellness.

Is There Anything You Should Eat To Reduce Stress Belly? Why?

After The Supercharged 3-week plan (which is all about FIXING the problems that underlie belly fat including digestive stress, poor liver health, inflammation and immune imbalance and more.) Then my patients move to The Hormone Boost plan, which I created to focus on BOOSTING the hormones that beat stress belly. It involves eating the right foods at the right timesin the right combinationsto optimize the hormone balance. This, plus moderate exercise, which doesn’t spike cortisol and tear down muscle, is certainly the secret to success.

The Right Foods
1. Eat lean protein, low-glycemic carbohydrates, fibre and healthy fats. Following this rule keeps your blood sugar stable, your energy up and boosts the glucagon that burns fat (and works opposite to insulin – which signals the body to store fat and increases appetite and cravings). Adding fibreto meals also increases adiponectin (the hormone our body releases when we exercise that boosts fat). Taking in a steady supply of protein throughout the day is also important because it boosts the hormones that help us burn fat (glucagon) and those that control our appetite and make us feel full (like PYY in the gut), every time we eat it. Furthermore, essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein are necessary to produce thyroid hormone, serotonin, dopamine, melatonin andgrowth hormone, which cannot be manufactured by the body, so they must be a vital component of our diet.

2. I want you to calculate specific guidelines for protein intake to build and preserve muscle. You have a daily range between1.6 – 2.2 g/kg of body weight. On the days you strength train or complete yoga, you need to consume protein based on the calculation of 2.2 g/kg of body weight. On any other given day, you should not go below a minimum amount of protein calculated as 1.6 g/kg of body weight. Once you have done your calculation, you can consume your protein in divided doses over three or four equally-sized meals each day. You’ll see in the meal plans that protein ranges from 25-35 grams per meal – which will hit an average-sized person’s needs, but you are free to tweak the recipes once you’ve done the calculations here. You can choose between a) three meals and one dose of protein closer to bedtime if needed (i.e. one serving of whey protein powder mixed with one serving of Clear Recovery), b) four meals,or c) two shakes (smoothie recipes or a meal replacement like Clear Complete) and two meals. Whatever works for you on a given day with your schedule works for me, too.
The Hormone Boost is all about boosting your fat loss, strength andenergy. According to a 2011 study published in the Viennese Wiener MedizinishceWochensschrift, nutrition plays a hugely important role in the prevention of sarcopenia (loss of muscle and becoming more fragile with age). This will not come as a news flash to The Hormone Diet Bootcamp alumni, but I am sharing these results because they are a great reminder of the associations between several nutritional factors and muscle mass, strength, function and physical performance. Adequate amounts of high-quality protein are integral forthe optimal stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. But the study also found that vitamin D, antioxidants (vitamins C and E) and omega 3-polyunsaturated fatty acids may also contribute to the preservation of muscle function. These last three need to be obtained through the foundation portion of The Hormone Boost supplement plan. The 2011 study also addressed the importance of physical activity, specifically resistance training (weight training), not only to facilitate muscle protein anabolism,but also to increase energy expenditure (i.e. metabolism and physical energy), appetite and food intake in elderly people at risk of malnutrition. The Hormone Boost is the plan you need to stay strong and mobile!

3. Avoid a starchy carb at breakfast while following The Hormone Boost plan. If you stick to a high-protein breakfast, it increases thyroid hormone and sets your dopamine levels for the day – which means that you will enjoy better appetite control and be craving-free while also avoiding that mid-afternoon slump. This means breads, cereals, bagels, etc. are off limits. The first few days may feel challenging, but I promise it will quickly become second nature after that. You can choose any meal option from Part Two that is free of starchy carbs, and I have even included fruit-free smoothie recipes if you want to skip fruit as a carb source at breakfast too.

4. Choose a completely carb-free breakfastto kick your fat-burning plan into high gear. Skipping fruit and other carbs at breakfast helps to keep you in the same ketogenic (fat-burning) state that happens overnight that lasts until your first meal carb-containing meal of the day. I don’t usually recommend this right away – I like to save it as a “tweak” for later use. You may want to kick in the carb-free breakfast as a means of tricking your metabolism, though, if you feel your results are slowing down or if you’ve hit a weight-loss plateau.

5. Ditch snacking.You will have four equally-sized meals instead. After almost 20 years of clinical practice and three bestselling books, I have seen a number of similar trends, over and over. A big one is the midafternoon snack, which seems to lack sufficient protein and offers too many carbs and too much fat. To escape this dieting mistake, we ditch the snacks in The Hormone Boost plan. Instead, you will eat three or four equally-sized meals and avoid sabotaging your results by failing to consume enough protein. We’ve always heard the importance of eating three square meals a day, and it might not be as outdated as it seems. If you consume enough protein, avoid excess carbs at meal times, and eat regularly, you can avoid messing with the hormones that keep on the weight. But if you skip meals, wait too long between meals, fail to consume enough protein, or eat the wrong foods, your body experiences more dips and spikes than it should – and that throws your hormones, like insulin and cortisol, out of whack. Specifically, waiting too long to eat between meals causes a blood sugar drop, which triggers a stress response in your body, which in turn releases cortisol – and causes your energy to crash hard. This causes you to overeat at your next meal, leading to a blood sugarand insulin spike. So eat three or four square meals. If you choose to eat four times a day, have a meal that contains whey protein as your third meal to cut cravings and balance cortisol, so you will eat less at your next meal. Many of my patients like to eat four times per day, as do I, so the Meal Plan is based on four meals, but you can tweak any recipe to suit your protein needs if you choose to eat three or five times per day.

6. Have your starchy carb after 4:00 pm, in your evening meal. The concept of eating your carbs early in the day because you will have a better chance of burning them off could actually be setting you up for cravings all day long. Eating a starchy carb – like potatoes or beans – early in the day creates cravings for them later in the day. So I suggest you eat only one in your last meal. At this point in the day, that carb will raise your serotonin levels, which help with sleep. And sleep is one of the best fat-burning activities when we create the optimum conditions for it, as laid out in The Hormone Boost rules. Consuming at least one starchy carb per day also helps to maintain testosterone. A diet free of starchy carbs drops testosterone and serotonin and increases stress hormones. Lastly, don’t forget the benefit that eating starch only in the evening meal has on boosting adiponectin during the day: this can increase greater weight loss and seems to be easier to follow. And we all know: any diet you stick to is the one for you.

7. Boost T3 thyroid hormone by having a “cheat meal” once a week. Your only restriction is that you must not consume any of the foods you are to avoid 100% of the time (i.e. the list above); otherwiseanything is fair game. Why the “cheat meal”? Continuous, extreme caloric restriction is not an effective long-term fat-loss solution – because it is simply not sustainable. The short-term victories achieved with this type of eating are always followed with rebound weight gain because, whether we like it or not, hormones will kick in to return the body to its status quo. From a physiological standpoint, this meal serves to increase your thyroid hormone (particularly the conversion of T4 to T3), to lower levels of Reverse T3 (which can block the action of T3) and generally to boost your metabolism. Remember that the human body is an adaptive machine: when you reduce overall calories, the body adapts and lowers your metabolism as a survival mechanism. Believe it or not, introducing a weekly cheat meal keeps your metabolism guessing and actually increases your long-term success. It prevents hunger and cravings,and refuels your muscles’ energy stores, particularly its glycogen, which helps to maintain your strength and endurance for your workouts.

You can learn more about this stage of the diet, complete list of permitted foods and suggested serving sizes in the dietary download included in the 28 Day Hormone Boost Kit, whey protein based or vegan protein based.

Additional Tips to Combat Stress Belly:

Relax / Sleep: This is particularly beneficial because it lowers cortisol, the main culprit for belly fat. And while we sleep, we benefit from the production of two powerful stress belly- busting hormones: growth hormone and melatonin. Both of these hormones help with stress belly because they support healthy muscle mass. Melatonin counteracts high levels of cortisol and estrogen and boosts thyroid hormone. Growth hormone helps women build muscle important for metabolism, blood sugar andinsulin balance. Sleep also helps maintain leptin levels, the hormone important for healthy appetite control and that also impacts insulin sensitivity.

High-Intensity Interval training:Definitely the best type of training for belly fat because it elicits the perfect hormonal response. When done properly, it raises growth hormone, increases adrenaline which burns fat, it also improves insulin sensitivity because it helps to support healthy muscle mass. This type of training is not associated with spiking cortisol. With these things combined, it makes it the perfect metabolic solution. It must be done for 30 minutes, and ideally three to four times a week. Combine this with one or two daysof interval cardio like sprinting, and walk as much as possible. One day of yoga is helpful to cut cortisol. All things said, this is my ideaof the perfect weekly workout prescription for stress belly.

Intermittent Fasting:if you practice intermittent fasting, ongoing, every day by avoiding eating until 1 PM or so and then eating only two meals a day, you will set yourself up for belly fat in the future because this does two things: 1) it causes cortisol imbalance because of the calorie restriction and eventually adrenal fatigue. 2) every single patient I have seen in a clinical study has lost muscle mass using this approach.
I recommend intermittent fasting where it is done once a week and on that day, calories are kept to less than 500-600. I find better results when my patients took products that have amino acids such as a wheyor pea-based meal replacement shake, taken three to four times throughout the day or bone broth (three servings sipped throughout the day). For my patients that want to do intermittent fasting on an ongoing basis, the solution I provide to them to use (that I also use myself) to avoid the harmful effects is to consume 15g of marine collagen, a product like my Clear Recoverythat contains 5g of creatine, and one serving of vegan, orwhey proteinin a shaker cup in the morning within 45 minutes of rising. This drink provides the essential amino acids to protect the muscles and prevent the spike in cortisol that happens by not eating and it also provides the essential nutrients to help protect the brain, thyroid, and digestive health. And yet this is carb and fat-free, so it has all the benefits for fat loss but not muscle loss.

Limiting fructose and glucose: this is essential for every person that wants to beat belly fat. The exception is you need to earn these foods so if you move a lot and exercise a lot then you can get away with eating a little bit of this. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it at all, or only once a week. Basically, you need to earn your cheat meal with sweat.

Going gluten and dairy free: I personally follow this approach myself, I find it the most helpful because it cuts inflammation and avoids the bloating associated with food sensitivities that can make you feel like you have a lot of belly fat. I tell patients this – if you wake up looking puffy around your eyes, feeling groggy, joint pain or stiffness in your hands – at least one or ore of the foods you are eating is triggering inflammation and slowing the loss of your stress belly.

Raising adiponectin levels:adiponectin is a fat burning friend. It approves insulin sensitivity, it has been known to reduce belly fat and reduce inflammation. It is released when we exercise, eat fiber and also with supplements like zinc, resveratrol, green teaand foods like olive oil, coffee,turmeric,red wine, tomato juice, blueberries, consuming one serving of carbs at dinner versus at any other time of day has also been proven to raise adiponectin and increase muscle which is why I have made this a foundational principle in my Hormone Diet and Hormone Boost books.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis:I have an infrared saunain my clinic, it is an excellent way to increase calories burned, boost metabolism especially for those who are unable to sweat from exercise. It also rids harmful excess estrogen – a major cause of belly fat as the subcutaneous fat cells release the stored toxic estrogen when the heat penetrates beneath the skin. As a result and when compared to a normal sauna, the infrared causes a greater release of toxins in the sweat.

So there you have it! A comprehensive approach to beating stress belly. You can experience the Hormone Diet 5-week fix in-clinic with our individual 5-Week Wellness Program or in our next group wellness class series of The Hormone Diet Bootcamp.

by Dr. Natasha Turner ND

photo courtesy of unSplash @rawpixel

How Constantly Feeling Stressed May Affect Your Weight

What’s the deal with stress and weight gain? Would you weigh less if you felt less frazzled?

“There are several ways stress can lead to weight gain,” says Ariana M. Chao, PhD, RN, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia. “People may eat as a way to cope with stress and as a way to make themselves feel better.” Prolonged, chronic stress can also lead to hormonal changes that may increase your appetite and cause cravings for higher-calorie comfort foods, such as ice cream, chips, and pizza.

By contrast, acute stress, which is of short duration, tends to make people lose their appetite as the brain directs resources away from normal body functions, such as eating, to the organ systems needed to survive an immediate challenge. “In the short term, adrenaline usually makes people feel less hungry,” says Dr. Chao. “However, with chronic stress, adrenaline’s effects on appetite wear off and cortisol starts to urge the body to replenish your energy stores. For some people, this tends to result in weight gain.”

That’s not to say acute stress can’t lead to overeating. In a study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, overweight volunteers exposed to stressful situations desired more desserts and snacks, and ate more carbohydrates and fat, compared with normal-weight subjects exposed to the same stressful situations. “We believe that stress adds to the need for reward, and a person needs more food to get the same reward” during a stressful situation, says Femke Rutters, PhD, study coauthor and researcher at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. “Overweight people are more often those with high restraint and high disinhibition.” In other words, she explains that being overweight may predispose you to want to restrain calorie intake and to cave in stressful situations or when unexpectedly presented with food.

RELATED: 9 Foods That Help or Hurt Anxiety

Why You Crave Comfort Food When You’re Stressed

Chronic stress has an almost diabolical effect on the metabolism. “Chronic stress may influence our brain’s reward system in areas such as the amygdala and hippocampus, which may promote food cravings,” says Chao.

The secretion of cortisol in response to a stressor also tells your body to store belly fat, says Shawn Talbott, PhD, an exercise physiologist and nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City, and author of The Cortisol Connection. A review published in July 2018 in the journal Medicine found that belly fat not only adds pounds but increases your risk for heart attack.

In addition, a study published in February 2017 in the European Journal of Neurology revealed a connection between belly fat and ischemic stroke in women. At the same time, hormones released in response to chronic stress can prompt the loss of skeletal muscle, according to a study published in January 2014 in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research. “Muscle tissue is the largest calorie burner in the body, so overall metabolism drops,” Dr. Talbott says.

Research has repeatedly found that social support can help decrease stress levels and thus lower the likelihood of weight gain. In a study published in May 2017 in the journal Behavior Modification, researchers found that while most first-year college students gained weight, students with lower levels of social support at the beginning of college had greater increases in body mass index (BMI).

BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight, and can be an indicator of disease risk associated with a higher amount of body fat, per the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Male students in the May 2017 study with stronger social support were less likely to “stress eat” and gain weight (information that’s backed up in Everyday Health’s United States of Stress story, by the way. When asked about various ways they de-stress, about 22 percent reported eating to help calm down.) Stressful eating encompasses consuming extra calories to compensate for increased appetite during stressful experiences, as well as the likelihood to eat more high-calorie foods during high-stress times. While this study did not find it, more research is needed to see if the same effect is observed in women as well.

You don’t need those carbs and fats to make you feel better. A study published in December 2014 in the journal Health Psychology found that eating relatively healthier comfort foods, such as air-popped popcorn or almonds, was just as likely to boost a negative mood as more caloric comfort food, such as ice cream, or a food that subjects considered “neutral,” such as a granola bar, in terms of how much they liked the food and how much comfort they thought it provided.

RELATED: 10 Foods I Eat Every Day to Help Manage Depression

The Importance of Sleep and Exercise for Stress Management

In several experimental studies, short-term sleep deprivation led to increased calorie intake and weight gain.

This may be because of changes in the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin, and a greater intake of high-calorie foods and sugar-sweetened beverages. Most adults should aim to get seven hours or more of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Exercise helps lower stress levels and may help decrease symptoms of anxiety, according to a systematic review of randomized clinical trials published in August 2015 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

But the benefits of moving regularly don’t end there. “Exercise can have direct effects on weight by helping burn calories and increasing lean muscle mass, which helps with weight control,” says Chao. “Regular exercise can help improve your physiological toughness when facing stress. Exercise can lead to beneficial adaptations in the stress response system that improve how your body reacts to future physiological stressors, which may result in the body being more efficient at coping with psychological stressors.”

Exercising regularly can also help you more rapidly recover from stressors and decrease negative feelings following a stressor. “This lessens the overall wear and tear that the stressors have on the body,” says Chao.

Plus, regular physical activity can stimulate the production of endorphins. These are brain chemicals that can elevate mood and produce feelings of relaxation, explains Chao.

As for how hormones, sleep deprivation, stress, and eating habits are linked, the connections are many. “Stress and sleep can interact in a cyclical manner,” says Chao. “High stress has negative effects on sleep quality and duration, and poor sleep can negatively affect stress levels. Sleep deprivation is often thought of as a chronic stressor that can contribute to stress dysregulation and hyperactivation of the stress systems, including higher levels of cortisol.”

“Cortisol is one of the main hormones involved in stress responses and prepares you for fight or flight,” says Chao. “It can increase your appetite and trigger cravings for high-calorie comfort foods. Stress hormones can also impact your metabolism and promote fat storage, particularly around the abdomen.” Higher cortisol levels resulting from insufficient sleep can furthermore influence areas in the brain that may further enhance the impact of stress, says Chao.

RELATED: A Science-Backed Plan to Fix Your Sleep Schedule

Science-Backed Tips for Preventing Stress-Fueled Weight Gain

“Too many people tend to view stress as something that they just have to deal with,” says Talbott. “But they really need to think about managing stress as something that is as important as their diet or their exercise program.”

Here are some tips for breaking the chronic stress-weight gain feedback loop:

Set priorities. “Make a record of how you spend your time each day for a week,” suggests Chao. “Decide which tasks and activities are most important to you and prioritize them.” Don’t forget to incorporate time for adequate sleep and exercise into your schedule. “Sleep and joyful physical movement are important parts of self-care,” says Alexis Conason, PsyD, a private-practice psychologist in New York City who counsels her patients on body image and acceptance, as well as mindful eating.

Sleep lays the foundation for mental well-being — when you feel well rested, you’re more likely to have more resilience and be better able to handle the changes that are bound to come up in your life. “In contrast, when you don’t get enough sleep, every little obstacle that comes up in your day-to-day life feels more difficult to cope with,” says Dr. Conason.

Become efficient. “Streamline healthy eating and physical activity to make them easier to fit into a busy lifestyle,” says Chao. Chop vegetables for the week to eat as snacks or to throw into stir-fries or salads, and prepack several days of lunch over the weekend. Keep a set of exercise clothes and shoes at the office so working out after you wrap up at your desk becomes a no-brainer.

RELATED: 5 Tricks for Getting Enough Fruit and Veggies

Love your body. “Poor body image, internalized weight bias, and body shame are major sources of stress,” says Conason. “Research suggests that internalized weight bias increases stress, as well as contributes to other poor medical and mental health outcomes.”

Improve your body image by focusing on being healthy. When eating, for example, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, take walks several times a week, and begin other healthful habits, rather than putting all your mental energy into the number on the scale.

“Mindfulness meditation is a great tool to decrease stress and improve our capacity for self-acceptance and self-compassion, which have been shown to reduce body image dissatisfaction, body shame, and associated stress,” says Conason. Mindfulness meditation is the act of being fully aware and present in the current moment, with a sense of nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance, explains Conason.

Recognize what you can appreciate in your life. At the same time that you acknowledge whatever is stressing you out, recognize what you can appreciate in life. “As simplistic as it sounds, the fact that you can look to what is improving in a given situation can help to psychologically buffer the stress in other areas of your life,” says Talbott.

RELATED: How Stress Affects Your Body, From Your Brain to Your Digestive System

Think before you snack. Stop before you eat other than at mealtimes, and consider whether you are actually hungry or if you’re reaching for food for another reason. “Food is not the best match for the emotional need of stress,” says Conason. “It may alleviate stress for a moment, but the stress will almost always return. It’s important to find a way to more authentically meet our emotional needs.”

Conason recommends focusing on noticing when you’re eating in response to stress, versus when you’re eating in response to physiological hunger. “From there, you can think about how to best care for your needs, whether that is with food or another coping mechanism, such as a stress-reduction or relaxation technique,” she says. Do some yoga or deep breathing, call a friend, read a book, or even take a nap. Don’t be afraid to seek professional support if you need it.

Take a walk. Instead of taking out your stress on a bag of chips, take it outside or walk around the house. It can do wonders for helping to calm you down.

Meal Programs

Here’s a crazy-making cycle that may sound familiar: you’re stressed out and you notice the number on the scale slowly creep upward. This of course stresses you out more. And the more stressed you get, the higher your weight climbs. Going nuts yet?

This isn’t your imagination at work and it probably isn’t your penchant for pastries that’s causing those extra pounds to pile on. Even if you’ve been diligently avoiding junk food, you may still be noticing an upward trend in your weight. Why? Well in a study from Ohio State University, researchers actually found that women who experienced stress burned over 100 fewer calories than women who had not experienced stress, directly after eating a high-fat meal. This stress-induced metabolic disruption led to the equivalent of 11 potential pounds gained over a year!

So why aren’t we hearing about this? Why are we continuously told to push ourselves harder and harder to lose weight when science is showing us that strict dieting and punishing workouts aren’t the answers? It’s time to rethink weight loss when it comes to women, and I want to show you how to start.

How stress is causing you to gain weight ~

The fact is, stress blocks our natural ability to lose weight. It disrupts our adrenal patterns and cortisol levels, so that fat doesn’t convert to useful glucose, but instead goes straight back into our cells. Instead of being used for energy, it just pads out your belly and hips. To make matters worse, extra fat in those cells equals extra estrogen and estrogen dominance is the cause of so many hormonal health issues from endometriosis to infertility.

If you’ve believed what the media and every diet book on the shelf says, you’ve probably tried restricting your calories and over-exercising in an effort to shed unwanted pounds. But as you’ve probably discovered, this simply doesn’t work. In fact, it causes more stress on your body, making it even harder to lose those stubborn pounds.

As far as I’m concerned, if you’re already stressed, it’s pretty barbaric to expect your body to go without enough food and strive for physical exhaustion to get around this problem. And if you’re over 35, just had a baby, or you’re suffering with hormonal imbalances, then it’s not only barbaric, but counterintuitive – you’ll only be increasing your appetite and your cravings. You’ll be starving, leading to inevitable carb binges and regret. Your adrenals will go haywire, causing your hormones to go into panic-mode, leaving you feeling low and lumpy.

The secret to avoiding stress-related weight gain ~

One of the most important ways to actually counter stress-induced weight gain is—surprise!—sleep.

That’s right – don’t move more, move less – and for 8-10 hours a night. But the quality of your sleep matters too. Decent, deep sleep calms the adrenals, rebalances your cortisol levels (avoiding the pitfalls of adrenal fatigue, and primes your body for weight loss. Good sleep helps you to burn more calories (when you’re awake and while you’re asleep!), melts more fat, and curbs those tendencies to give in to unhealthy cravings and overeating.

For those who run on too little, poor quality sleep has been found to lead to an experience of increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreased levels of the satiety hormone leptin, causing both overeating and weight gain. Five days of a bad night’s sleep can cause you to add on another two pounds in just that short period of time.

It makes sense: when we’re sleepy or exhausted, we eat more of the wrong kinds of foods to keep us going. Our hormones get sluggish, our adrenals slow, and our metabolism slumps. To interrupt this damaging cycle, the best thing you can do is to set a sleep schedule that protects your body’s fat burning skills from this kind of sabotage.

5 tips to getting the right kind of sleep that burns fat ~

1) Quit caffeine for good: Follow my coffee detox plan and replace your morning cup of Joe with something more adrenal-soothing.

2) Download a blue light-blocking App: Install a blue light filter on your laptop and phone to decrease the stimulating, sleep-disrupting light your devices currently give off. Try this one or this one for calmer evening times.

3) Get off!: Orgasms will help you fall into a deep and restorative sleep. Follow my steps to get the best solo experience of your life!

4) Supplement the right way: Figure out your personal sleep story to make the right choices in supplements that will see you through the night with no slip-ups.

5) Get enough magnesium: A magnesium deficiency is one of the most common health issues and one of the most prominent causes of sleep disturbance, so you need to consciously supplement and sustain.

Always remember, that once you have the right information about how your body really works, you can start making health choices that finally start to work for you! You can do this – the science of your body is on your side!

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