Weight and Mental Health

How Do I Fight Stress Related Weight Gain?

Max Carmody, MSc

To fight stress or cortisol induced weight gain, you want to reduce your levels of stress. The most important thing you can do is to eliminate the main source of your stress. However, to reduce stress you can also exercise, see a professional therapist or dietician, get the correct amount of sleep, avoid caffeine and stimulates, nurture healthy relationships, and practice mindfulness or meditation.

How Does Increased Cortisol Lead to Weight Gain?

Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is responsible for triggering the body’s “fight or flight” response. During times of increased stress, adrenaline and cortisol are released. This causes an increase in heart rate and energy levels, and prepares the body for a potentially dangerous situation. Cortisol also manages blood sugar, metabolism, circadian rhythm, inflammation, and immune response. Cortisol is made by the adrenal glands, that sit on top of your kidneys. When the adrenal glands release cortisol, it travels through the blood throughout the whole body. Almost every cell in the body has cortisol receptors, so the effects are very far reaching.

Small rises in cortisol because of stress are normal, and will most likely not cause negative side effects. But sometimes, cortisol levels can stay chronically elevated. When cortisol levels stay elevated for too long, the following side effects can occur; weight gain, high blood pressure, fatigue, changes in mood, irritability, flushed face, thinning skin, difficulty concentrating, and insulin resistance. If you are concerned about increased levels of stress from PTSD and want to understand how that can lead to weight gain, you can find an article here that I wrote on the topic.

High levels of cortisol may promote overeating. While under chronic stress, it can be difficult to maintain healthy habits of eating. Studies have been done showing higher levels of belly fat and an association with a higher cortisol response, although a direct relationship has not yet been established. Low levels of cortisol may also lead to weight loss in certain instances.

When the flow of cortisol is interrupted, it may not only cause weight gain, but it may also effect where you put the weight in the body. Some studies have shown that elevated cortisol and stress tend to cause fat to be stored in the abdomen rather than the hips. This store of fat has been called “toxic fat” since it is strongly correlated with developing cardiovascular disease, including strokes and heart attacks.

Reducing Cortisol

The first thing to do if you are experiencing excessive stress, is to attempt to reduce or eliminate the source of stress. This isn’t always possible of course. Think carefully about where all your stress is coming from. Some different sources of stress include physical stress, social stress, emotional stress, environmental stress, and health-related stress.

One of the main ways to fight cortisol weight gain is to reduce levels of cortisol. Exercise may be the best way to fight cortisol levels out of all of them. Exercising regularly has been shown to reduce stress levels, and allows us to be more resilient when stress does present itself. Exercise also stimulates endorphins, chemicals that promote happiness and can help to manage stress.

If you are really concerned that you may be too stressed out and gaining weight because of it, it might be wise to seek professional help. You can visit a therapist, a dietician, or both. Visiting a therapist may actually help you to reduce levels of cortisol by working out some of the issues that are stressing you out. Or a therapist may be able to come up with a good strategy for you to reduce cortisol levels. A dietician may be able to come up with strategies to manage your eating.

Sleep can have an effect on cortisol levels and weight gain. When your sleep pattern is disrupted, it can cause an unhealthy increase in cortisol levels. This can cause an increase in some hormones related to appetite and hunger, that can potentially lead to weight gain. Getting a healthy amount of sleep each night can help to offset this. 8 hours is the standard, but some people need a little more, and some need a little less.

You will want to avoid, or at least reduce, caffeine and stimulants. Caffeine has been shown to directly stimulate cortisol release. 

One additional thing that you can do is to maintain healthy relationships. Reaching out to your social support system when you need it can really be helpful. One study showed that “having an affectionate interaction (verbally or physically) with a romantic partner or platonic friend before a stressful activity resulted in lower stress-induced markers such as heart rate and blood pressure”

Mindfulness and Meditation for Reducing Cortisol

Eating mindfully can also be helpful. Mindfulness is full awareness of what is going on, really being absorbed in the moment. When it applies to food, it means that you are fully aware of your eating experience, including things like taste, texture, and fullness. You may be less likely to overeat, as mindfulness generally encourages taking your time with things, which could lead to more savoring. 

Along the same lines as mindful eating is meditation. Meditation can help restore calm and inner peace. It can give you a sense of balance and can help with both your emotional well being and your overall health. “When you meditate, you may clear away the information overload that builds every day and contributes to your stress”

There are some different ways to meditate. You can do both guided meditations, or solo meditations. With a guided meditation, you generally listen to a recording (or are in a live class) and somebody else talks you through the meditation and tells you exactly what to do. With a solo meditation you just do it on your own. You can easily find guided meditation videos on the internet or youtube.

There are many different types of meditation, some of them are loving kindness meditation, body scan, and breathing meditation. Breathing meditation is probably the most well known. With this one you generally just breathe in and out slowly, and focus on the breath. Sometimes you do counting as well. For body scan meditation, which is my favorite and I like to do it guided, you focus on the sensations of each part of the body, one at a time, for example, paying attention to how each of your toes feels in relation to your socks, and the air.

If you would like to learn more about meditation and mindfulness to reduce stress, you can purchase a concise e-book on the topic here for $5.99.

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