Is Cortisol Making You Fat?
Stress response stacking on the pounds?
As if stress on its own wasn’t tough enough, there’s now reason to believe that elevated stress levels may even be the sneaky culprit behind your unexplained gains (and not the good kind).
Stress is a fact of life - whether it's from everyday pressures at work or home, feeling overwhelmed or overworked, or even full-blown catastrophes that catapult you into evasive action.
And while our body's stress response is a critical part of our biology that safely gets us out of life or death situations, it can get a little out of hand at times... Including the annoying addition of a spare tire around your waist, especially if chronic stress is a co-star in your daily life. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Among the other detrimental effects that worry, tension, anxiety and burnout can have on us, excess stress can wreak havoc on our weight management too - and we're here to explain why.
Let's dive into the science behind the phenomenon, and discover how to outsmart this player named cortisol who's busy stacking on the pounds while you're doing damage control on the stressors in your life.
It goes down like this:
Stress for Survival... Still?
Chances are, you've probably heard of the stress hormone cortisol. This important (but kinda dramatic, TBH) chemical messenger is the rocket fuel behind our fight-or-flight response, passed down to us from our ancient ancestors.
Among its other functions in our body, cortisol gives us the quick reflexes and energy bursts required to keep us out of harm's way - so it's fair to say our survival has depended on it since the dawn of time.
So how is it hindering us so badly in the modern day?
Luckily for us, most of our tension in this day and age isn't born from a necessity to be on high alert all the time - We don't need to outrun a sabre tooth tiger attack at a moment's notice too often these days...
But, this also means exaggerated cortisol levels from intense stress don't serve us well - instead, they slow down our body's essential processes like our metabolism, immune function, fat burning and nutrient absorption when it's really not necessary to conserve that energy for a fast physical response anyways.
Even though our brains know we don't need to flee dangerous situations on the daily, our hormones missed the memo. At the slightest taste of stress, cortisol gets busy dumping energy into our quick-twitch reflexes and shutting down our metabolic function in preparation for a fight or hasty escape.
Unfortunately, this means excess cortisol in response to modern-day stressors can have a metabolism-crushing effect, and if chronic stress mounts over time (like it does for many, if not all of us), our fat burning efforts can really suffer.
Why Excess Cortisol = Excess Baggage
When you’re under stress or hit with a perceived sense of danger, your sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, effectively triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response. This kicks a slew of biological processes into action. First, the adrenal glands in your kidneys release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, aka ‘the stress hormone’.
Cortisol plays a key role in regulating your body’s metabolism, or the conversion of food into energy through the release of glucose into the bloodstream. If this process is out of whack, your body switches into survival mode, and we all know what that means.
With a cortisol dump immediately following your perception of threat, the initial spike in metabolism is a survival response. It provides a quick burst of energy, but elevated levels in the long run can interfere with your body's basic functions in all sorts of ways, including putting on some unwanted baggage...
Stress Eating, We're Looking at You.
If you've noticed some unusual weight gain after a particularly stressful phase, it can often be attributed to unsustainably high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. For one, due to the role it plays in metabolism, higher cortisol levels generally means increased appetite—and we all know a ravenous appetite is no easy beast to tackle.
Additionally, appetite doesn’t do us any favors in the nature of its demands. Because the biological purpose is to provide quick energy in the form of sugar and fat, stress-induced cravings tend to cause us to turn towards sweet, fatty and salty foods.
In other words, chances are good you’ll be reaching for the potato chips or picking up fast food rather than opting for a healthy, balanced meal.
How Can You Break the Cycle?
The best solutions are always the ones that target the root of the problem—in this case, stress. Making stress management a priority is the single most effective way to prevent stress-related weight gain, not to mention all of the other detrimental long term health effects for which stress is the silent perpetrator.
But, as we know, managing stress is no quick nor easy fix. Start by identifying when you’re under stress and how it’s reflected in your eating habits, then making meaningful yet sustainable changes in your daily life. You probably don’t need to be told to avoid unnecessary stress, but purposefully engaging stress-relieving tactics like exercise, meditation, listening to music, etc. can also help keep your cortisol levels in check.
Additionally, some practical tips like keeping healthy snacks handy, drinking more water, and keeping a food journal can be helpful for staving off the cravings.
Finally, if there's a tried-and-true antidote to the ‘silent killer’ that is stress, it's exercise.
There are countless ways in which exercise works to relieve stress and minimize its effect on your body, but when it comes to maximizing your physical performance and results, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of information and options.
To take an extra element of stress off your plate when it comes to hammering out a fitness plan that fits in with your busy schedule, try one of our MME programs like the Warrior Shred Program. It combines bodyweight and running workouts to help clear your head and boost feel-good, stress-busting endorphins while getting you shredded: A surefire way to make the most of your time and effort while fully harnessing your potential.
Thanks for reading - stay strong, warrior.
Maggie Johnson | MME Lifestyle Contributor
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