Many adults, especially those between the ages of 20 and 50, report high levels of psychological stress. Many of us are constantly over-scheduled, over committed, overworked, and fail to spend adequate time on self-care.
Stone et al. (2017) found using survey data accrued from 1.5 million survey respondents, that perceived stress seems to decline steadily after the age of 50 and onwards into the senior years. This makes complete sense in that many young and middle-aged adults have a hefty workload both at home raising children and at work where many of us are in the build phase of our careers.
Where does this lead ? How many fitness professionals see a long line of 35- to 50-year-olds in our practices seeking weight loss ? How many of these are overstressed mothers who report they have very little time to exercise ? How many of them report feeling guilty for engaging in self-care activities because it may be taking time away from family or work commitments ?
Unfortunately, we are not machines. Our bodies keep score. The constant barrage of stress with no relief causes a cascade of hormonal events and unhealthy, but reinforced behaviors, leading to weight gain and fat retention.
Why does stress lead to weight gain ?
Short-term stress is not necessarily tied to long-term endocrine disturbance; however, chronic long-term stress can cause hormone dysregulation leading to weight gain via an increase in appetite, poor glucose control, and increased fat storage (Chao et al., 2017).
Chronic stress also tends to increase cravings for calorie-dense foods (high in sugar and fat) and these cravings are more pronounced in women than men (Ans et al., 2018). Let us review some of the hormones involved in the long-term stress response.
The body’s prime directive during periods of acute stress is to mobilize energy stores, keeping them ready to provide energy so the person can either fight or flight.
Cortisol is the first hormone that comes to mind when discussing stress. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone meaning its purpose is to break down tissue to give the body a boost of energy. Some amount of cortisol secretion throughout the day is normal and healthy following a pattern of higher levels in the morning and gradually falling throughout the day.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels lead to poor glucose control (spikes and drops in blood glucose) and can lead to a subsequent increase in appetite and cravings for sugary foods. Chronically elevated cortisol inhibits the production of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which is a hormone that helps to suppress appetite (Ranabir & Reetu, 2011).
Thyroid hormones (TSH, thyroxin)
Cortisol elevation downregulates the production of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and therefore has the same effect on triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). These hormones have a regulatory effect on metabolism. Decreases in thyroid output led to a decrease in overall metabolic rate and some cases, sub-clinical or clinical hypothyroidism. This condition is commonly linked to difficulty with weight control (Helmreich & Tylee, 2011).
Stress (linked to cortisol secretion) leads to decreased insulin output and decreased insulin sensitivity. This makes it difficult for the body to store glucose appropriately (i.e., in skeletal muscle tissue) and increases its conversion to fat (Ranabir & Reetu, 2011).
Ghrelin is a hormone released in the gastrointestinal tract that has strong effects on the brain relating to appetite control. Ghrelin levels are elevated when a person is hungry and decrease after eating.
It tells the body to decrease insulin production, lower metabolic rate to conserve energy, increase glucose production, and stimulates the rewards pathway between the brain and the stomach. Ghrelin levels rise in times of high stress and may induce overeating in response to stress as it reinforces the rewards pathway in the brain in response to eating (Abizaid, 2019).
Dopamine is a hormone strongly linked to reward pathways in the brain and is often involved in cases of addictive behaviors, especially alcohol and various drugs. Dopamine secretion is also lowered in times of high stress blunting this reward pathway. Highly palatable (sugar, fat, salt combinations) foods often trigger increased dopamine secretion.
This mechanism is thought to be partially responsible for binge eating behaviors (Bello & Hajnal, 2010). Cravings for these highly palatable foods can become overwhelming during times of chronic stress leading to overeating and weight gain.
What are the health risks of weight gain and stress ?
The health risks of weight gain, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, dyslipidemia, heart disease, stroke, depression, and cancer are well known. The hormonal disruption caused by chronic stress can increase the risk for these conditions independently of the weight gain component (Ans et al., 2018).
A word on stress-related weight loss strategies
Weight loss seems like a simple task- reduce caloric intake and increase movement (exercise). Yet, if it were simple, we would not have 70 percent of the population classified as overweight or obese. Human physiology has evolved over many years to favor fat gain when possible. The stress response is no different (Bello & Hajnal, 2010).
Hence, weight loss is not always as simple as counting macros, setting up meal plans, increasing steps, and getting to the gym regularly. Oftentimes, weight control problems are deeply rooted in long-standing behavior patterns and stress was the likely trigger that started them.
Taking steps to reduce stress at baseline can help treat the root cause of weight control issues by normalizing hormonal function and reducing the urge to binge or overeat highly palatable calorie-dense foods. These recommended strategies can help to reduce stress and cortisol which will decrease the negative hormonal effects of psychosocial stress.
4 ways to lose stress weight
- Deal With Past Trauma
- Self-Care and Setting Limits
- Getting Enough Sleep
Did you know that attending group fitness classes regularly can reduce stress? Yorks et al. (2017) carried out a study that included 69 medical students. The students were split into three groups one of which did not exercise, one of which was given a home workout program, and the third attended 30-minute group fitness classes regularly during the 12-week study period.
Interestingly, the control group (no exercise) and group completing home workouts showed no improvement in markers of emotional and mental stress while the group participating in the group fitness classes showed significant improvement in emotional and mental well-being which increased throughout the study period. Although increasing movement overall can be an excellent tool for stress reduction, it seems that attending group workouts maybe even better.
2. Deal With Past Trauma
People suffering from past traumas are often those who have an amplified chronic stress response. Trauma can wreak havoc with the endocrine system, disrupting the normal dopamine responses and lowering levels of oxytocin (another hormone that regulates hunger). Grilo et al. (2013) conducted a study with 105 obese women diagnosed with binge eating disorder and determined that 24 percent of the group met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While trauma is not necessarily the cause of chronic stress in all clients seeking weight loss, it is something that is often overlooked and not consciously linked to weight control problems. Treating PTSD and/or past traumas may be a necessary step in reducing chronic stress.
3. Self-Care and Setting Limits
Engaging in self-care activities is strongly correlated with lower levels of perceived stress (Luis et al., 2021). Placing value on your time and consciously setting limits at work, with friends, and even with family members is critical for reducing psychosocial stress. This means allowing time for sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and leisure time. These things are just as important for your health as regular dental check-ups, regular healthcare, and practicing good hygiene.
Now, it can be very difficult to see how attending your favorite yoga class, having lunch with a friend, or taking a quiet walk through the woods can help your weight loss efforts, but they can be equally as important as logging your food and sticking to your caloric deficit. Think of these activities as a long-term investment in your weight loss efforts. It may take some time to see results, but you may be addressing the root of a weight control problem.
4. Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep is something frequently sacrificed in busy adults who are struggling to keep up with work and family demands. However, sleep is a powerful modulator of the endocrine and nervous systems. Failing to get optimal sleep for long periods will lead to poor glucose control, elevated cortisol levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, and increased ghrelin levels. This means increased appetite, reduction in metabolic rate, and urges to consume high-calorie foods (Beccuti & Pannain, 2011).
Adults aged 18 to 60 years old require at least 7 hours of quality sleep per night. Lost sleep creates sleep debt which needs to be made up with naps and/or additional sleep. Setting aside a wind-down period at night, avoiding using electronics before bed (i.e., television and smartphones), and going to bed and getting up at regular times (even on weekends) can help improve sleep quality hence reducing a stress response (Watson et al., 2015).
Some supplements that may help with stress-related weight
Gao et al. (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of many studies conducted on sleep disorders and vitamin D deficiency. The researchers determined that there is a link between sleep disorders and vitamin D deficiency. Ensuring sufficient vitamin D intake or exposure to sunlight can help to promote restorative sleep and reduce inflammation in the body.
Fish oil (Omega 3 fatty acids)
It is well established that a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acids and/or supplementation with fish oil reduces inflammation in the body, however, newer research is demonstrating that supplementation with omega 3 fatty acids may also lead to stress reduction. A randomized controlled trial of 68 medical students was split into two groups- a control group that received a placebo and an intervention group that was given 2500 mg/day of fish oil supplements.
After the 12-week study period, the intervention group showed a significant reduction in inflammatory markers and anxiety symptoms. Fish oil supplementation or increasing intake of omega 3 fatty acid-rich foods (i.e., salmon, mackerel, cod, oysters, flax seeds, and walnuts) may help reduce stress and inflammation (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2011).
Stress is not just something that we should ignore. It can disrupt hormonal and neurological function in our bodies- promoting fat storage and altering normal eating patterns and behaviors. Likewise, weight loss is not always as simple as eating less and moving more. Sometimes there are deeper issues that must be addressed for a person to succeed in stopping or reversing weight gain.
The next time you are tempted to skimp on sleep, skip that group fitness class for the sake of soccer practice or cancel lunch plans with a dear friend because of a work project, think about your long-term goals. Your mental health has a strong bearing on your physical health.
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