When it comes to weight, there’s this notion that the only two factors at play are calories and movement. Nutrition and exercise undoubtedly play a vital role in weight management because together they regulate energy balance. However, digging deeper into the biology of weight loss and weight gain, there’s a third factor that plays an equally critical role.
The often-overlooked component of weight regulation, is stress. Due to the consequences stress exerts on physiology, stress management is an important pillar of any weight loss program. When stress regulation is missing the classic cycle of weight loss followed by weight gain is perpetuated, accompanied by an absence of sustained weight loss.
Before we discuss the role of stress in weight gain, it’s paramount to understand the fundamental mechanisms of stress. The most important characteristic of stress is that it is a survival response. It serves as an alarm system that signals the body to shut down functions that are not a matter of life or death. Immune function, digestion and metabolism are halted- which all happen to be mechanisms essential for sustaining a healthy weight.
The Big Deal With Cortisol
One of the first things to happen when we perceive stress, is that the body makes cortisol. When cortisol, known as the main stress hormone, is chronically elevated, the physiology of the body changes and it promotes weight gain. This is due to a cascade of reactions that alter biology.
Historically, stress meant danger and the primal response to danger is to run. Due to this, cortisol breaks down our carbohydrate stores which release sugar into the bloodstream, giving us the energy we need to escape a dangerous situation.
In our modern world, our stresses are psychological in nature, and don’t require us to get up and physically run. Although the nature of stress is different, the biological reaction is the same. The only difference is now, instead of using all the extra sugar to run away, from say, a tiger- the sugar sits in our bloodstream.
Why This Matters
High blood sugar is a driving force behind weight gain, or inability to lose weight.
Blood sugar levels are tightly regulated in the body. When sugar is high, insulin takes it into the cells, where it can use it for energy. An issue arises when we have high blood sugar levels long-term (ie- in chronic stress), because that means insulin is always present in high levels in the body.
The stress cascade looks like this: Stress → Cortisol → Increases blood sugar → High Insulin
This is important, because insulin helps tissues, including fat cells grow. Insulin and fat have an intricate relationship. Insulin signals the body to store fat, and subsequently the body isn’t able to burn fat when insulin is present. Insulin also down- regulates growth hormone, which encourages lean muscle mass leading to a “softer” body composition.
On a cellular level it takes a lot of energy to be stressed. In addition to promoting insulin production, cortisol (stress) increases appetite and the preference for high calorie foods to make up for the energy the stress response uses.
The last prominent mechanism through which stress and more specially, cortisol promotes weight gain is through its effect on the placement of fat. When there is cortisol in high amounts in the body, we see a redistribution of fat to the abdominal area, where it can accumulate rapidly. It also suppresses the activity of brown fat, known as our “good fat”. Brown fat burns more calories than our “normal” fat, and the loss of it lowers the number of calories we burn throughout the day- known as out basal metabolic rate.
Stress is a given in our lives, especially at this particular moment in time- so what’s the antidote? What are the action steps that we can take, and how can we mitigate versus eliminate stress from our lives? It is possible to shift the biology of stress. Let us take a look at how!
Taking mindful actions to first become aware of our stress levels and then mindfully implement habits that help us modulate the stress response is paramount in regulation of weight in the long-term.
Taking a supplement to induce weight loss on its own is a poor strategy that will not yield profound or long-lasting results. With this in mind, a targeted supplement can be helpful, accompanying a holistic weight management program- especially when it comes to stress.
A class of herbs called adaptogens help to modify the stress response in the body- one such adaptogen, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce levels of stress and minimize the amount of cortisol secreted.
Cortisol Adapt by AOR, addresses our perception of stress, which minimizes our biological reaction to it. Cortisol calm promotes a feeling of calmness in the short term. Thanks to its herbal and nutraceutical formula it has also has cumulative effects that help keep the body in homeostasis even in times of stress.
Cortisol Adapt can work with your body to stop the negative cascade of events that perpetuate weight gain, and normalize cortisol levels in the body. It also helps to promote a restful nights sleep and lower inflammation, two more factors to consider when trying to lose weight!
Varying breath techniques have been used in cultures all around the world for centuries as a way to relax the body. When we are stressed, the body is hyper aroused and if we are able to come down into a relaxed state we are able to reduce cortisol.
We suggest box breathing. Breath in through the nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4 , exhale through the nose for 4 and hold for another count of 4. Repeat for a couple minutes whenever you feel stress kicking in.
Simply becoming aware of your breath has also been shown to calm the nervous system down.
Walking in Nature
Connecting to nature and movement have been shown to mitigate stressful feelings. When you begin to feel stressed, get up and take a walk- even if it's just around the block. The combination of fresh air and movement can help relax the body and the mind.
A healthy weight looks different for everyone, but when weight loss or maintenance is the goal there are several at play that can hinder progress. Focusing on nutrient rich nutrients, moving in a way that feels good to you and managing stress are three pillars which need to be addressed in order to reach a sustainable and healthy weight for you!
Author: Lisa Kowalyk, CNP, B.Kin