Is stress blocking your weight loss?

I am frequently asked about the relationship between stress and weight gain.  

In truth, stress and excess fat storage go hand in hand – one triggers the other. 

When you are under stress, your adrenals release a stress hormone called cortisol. 
The main function of cortisol during the stress reaction is that it stimulates release of glucose, fats, and amino acids for energy production AND it helps you replenish your body after the stress has passed. 

As majority of women live under chronic stress cortisol levels remain elevated. 

Can chronic elevations of cortisol lead to weight gain?

Unfortunately, an over secretion of cortisol will lead to weight gain, typically in the abdominal region. Here  is why :

Increased appetite which ultimately drives you to eat more. "While the immediate response to acute stress can be a temporary loss of appetite, more and more we are coming to recognize that for some people, chronic stress can be tied to an increase in appetite -- and stress-induced weight gain," says Elissa Epel, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco.

Poor nutritional choices that can actually increase your stress levels and cause other problems, such as obesity.

Cravings -- chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels keep your appetite high all the time and crave for wrong type of food. Most likely, you seek out foods like cookies, candy, ice cream, chips and pizza, and there’s a good reason why. These foods are typically less healthy and lead to increased weight gain.

Fat storage -- excessive stress even affects where you tend to store fat. Higher levels of stress are linked to greater levels of abdominal fat. Unfortunately, abdominal fat is not only aesthetically undesirable; it’s linked with greater health risks than fat stored in other areas of the body. Metabolic or X syndrome, a cluster of health concerns that can lead to greater health problems, like heart attacks and diabetes. One 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.

Stress eating -- when you are not stressed, you only tend to eat food when you are hungry. The situation is very different under stress; increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food, but excess nervous energy can often cause you to eat more than you normally would. Under stress, most times you even don’t notice you are munching something.

Forgetting/skipping meals - it is important to eat three meals and three healthy snacks and most women know this, but stress can have the effect of making you skip, or forget to eat your meals. Women who are overly stressed tend to pick up this habit and find out that later on in the day they will become hungry, and more likely resort to eating junk food to satisfy their hunger. 

Slows metabolism -  Too much cortisol will slow your metabolic engine, making weight loss much more difficult. If you're trying to lose weight, this decrease in your metabolic function may make the process frustrating.

Difficult weight loss and dieting - your bodies are designed to burn calories from fats for energy, instead of carbohydrates and lean muscle tissue (protein). In fact, you get more than two-and-a-half times more energy when you burn calories from stored body fats instead of carbs and proteins.

Unfortunately high cortisol and adrenaline levels as a result of chronic stress trigger your body to burn calories from carbs and lean muscle (protein) instead of fats. It literally inhibits your body from burning calories from stored body fat and takes you out of your fat burning mode that you are designed to be in throughout the day.

Plus high levels of cortisol promote the loss of muscle tissue that leads to a fall of the basal metabolic rate, which means we are able to burn even less calories at rest. We enter into a vicious circle of increased appetite, reduced caloric expenditure, and accelerated fat accumulation.    

Take a moment. 

Your mind plays a major role in managing cortisol levels, so choose not to see everything as a stressor (as much as you may want to!). It may not feel like you have the time, but spend 15 minutes doing mindful breathing, yoga, or even going for a short walk. The brief respite will clear your mind and remind you that you can handle this.

Ready for the next step?

Resolve stress and stress-induced eating for long-term weight management -- join me for Mindful eating program.

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