Have you noticed you tend to gain weight in times of high stress?
Especially the area around our belly seems to be prone to fat gain. If you are trying to lose weight, maintain your healthy bodyweight and live an active lifestyle, high levels of stress can stall your progress. In fact, cortisol, our stress hormone could possible inhibit weight loss!
In today’s article, part 3 of the “Counteract Cortisol” Series, I would like to share the science behind this and explain why nutrition and working out might not always be enough to balance your hunger hormones (to reduce food cravings) and lose weight effectively.
Make sure to check out the other parts of this series:
Good and bad forms of stress
Richard Lazarzus, a psychologist, defines stress as “…any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, social system, or tissue system.”
Thus, stress is widely associated with negative situations and settings.
However, low to moderate levels of stress are actually vital. Our body needs stimulus to develop physiologically, as well as psychologically.
Chronic stress that accumulates over an extended period of time, leads to increased Cortisol levels and thus contributes to the development of many diseases. As cortisol has receptors in our entire body, it can lead to many different diseases.
Stress and fat loss
High levels of stress make us gain fat.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, this means that it activates all processes in our body used to provide energy. Glucose and amino acids are released from our glycogen stores and muscles to use for fuel.
At the same time, protein metabolism stops, our metabolism slows down in general (your burn less calories) and increases fat storage. It decreases the secretion of anabolic hormones, such as Testosterone, DHEA and growth hormone, which all play a key role in weight loss and a healthy metabolism.
It has been shown in various studies that Cortisol and visceral fat, the fat storage around your organs, are linked to each other. Furthermore, Cortisol directly effects fat storage and weight gain, especially in stressed individuals.
In fact, scientists found that an enzyme needed to activated Cortisol from its inactive form is increased in obese individuals. Thus, Cortisol does not only increase body fat but the visceral fat tissue does also contribute to further increases of Cortisol levels. This makes it much harder for obese individuals to lose weight and reduce stress levels.
In addition to that, deep abdominal fat seems to have four times more cortisol receptors compared to subcutaneous fat cells. Thus, high amounts of the enzymes to activate Cortisol, higher blood flow and more receptors that Cortisol can bind to all contribute to higher levels of Cortisol produced in abdominal fat. This increases cortisol’s fat accumulating and fat cell size enlarging effect.
As I explained in the second part of this series, chronic high Cortisol levels contribute to several harmful physiological events. For instance, it increases the risk of development of hypertension, hyperlipidemia (high levels of lipids in our blood), hyperglycemia (high levels of glucose in our blood), which all contribute to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, as well as cerebrovascular disease.
Stress-induced Insulin resistance
The connection between Cortisol and Insulin resistance is a topic that still needs more research. However, recent studies have shown that acute psychological stress contributes to the development of Insulin resistance.
-> Related: Why you fail to lose weight – Insulin resistance
As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, Cortisol affects our liver and glucose metabolism. To keep it short, high levels of Cortisol reduce our livers ability to effectively process glucose and Insulin. Thus, our body does not respond to Insulin anymore and our blood sugar levels remain high.
The lack of glucose transported to our organs signals our brain that we need more food. Thus, we get hungry and increase food intake. This leads inevitably to weight gain and the high levels of glucose in our blood increase risk of development of diabetes type 2.
In times of stress, high levels of Cortisol and Insulin send a signal to our fat cells to store as much fat as possible. Thus, stress reduces our body’s ability to burn fat as fuel.
Cortisol and Food Cravings
We all know that most important for weight gain is increased food intake. As long as you eat a surplus of calories, you will gain weight. If you have increased Cortisol levels on top of that, you will gain fat much faster, especially around the abdominal area.
In the early stages of stress, the regulatory hormone for Cortisol, CRH, is released and suppresses our appetite in our Hypothalamus. Whenever we have an important exam or event, we don’t feel hungry and even the thought of food creates an unpleasant feeling.
As the stress becomes chronic, this effect changes. High levels of Cortisol actually increase our food cravings, especially cravings for sugar. Cortisol has receptors in our entire body and largely alters processes in our brain too. Thus, high levels of cortisol can disturb the balance of hunger regulating hormones released in our hypothalamus.
-> Related: The science of food cravings
Among these are Neuropeptide Y and CRH (the regulating hormone for Cortisol release). In addition to that, Cortisol increases Leptin resistance as well. Thus, reduced levels of leptin and high levels of NPY and CRH all contribute to increase of appetite.
As I explained in the hunger series, Leptin is one of the key hormones to tell our brain that we have eaten enough. It is produced by our fat tissue and signals our brain that we are healthy and don’t need more food. Thus, low levels of leptin, or reduced amount of receptors for leptin, signal our body we need to eat more.
-> Related: Leptin and Obesity: Why you fail to lose weight
How to identify stress-induced fat gain
As I mentioned above, increased Cortisol levels contribute to increased fat storage around your abdominal area. Thus, professional use the waist-to-hip-ratio (WHR) measurement or waist circumference measurement to identify patients with increased risk for the diseases high Cortisol levels lead to.
The WHR is the circumference of your waist (narrowest part of the torso, right below rips), divided by the circumference of your hips (widest part of your hips, around your glutes). In general, health risk is very high for men when WHR is >0.96 and when it is >0.84 for women.
Stress will always be a part of our daily living. In fact, some levels of stress are necessary to provide a challenge for physiological and psychological development. However, chronic stress with high Cortisol levels over a period of time, combined with poor nutrition and lack of exercise, will alter hormonal balances in our body, leading to diseases.
In terms of weight loss, it has been shown that high Cortisol levels contribute to fat gain around our abdominal area and further increase food intake by inhibiting release of appetite-controlling hormones. This increases the challenge for the individual and for health care professionals to reset Cortisol’s effect on our body and lose weight.
While there are many pills on the market, claiming to inhibit Cortisol’s effects in our body, it is unknown whether they could actually further harm our body. Thus, it is best to take it slow and change our lifestyle, as well as focus on specialized training and nutrition to reduce Cortisol production in our body.
More on this topic in the next articles!
I hope today’s article helped you understand why you might tend to store fat on your belly area, especially in stressful times. In the next articles, we will look at other health risks of stress first before we finally look at ways to reverse this effect with proper nutrition and exercise!
Share your fitness journey with us! Join my private facebook group, where we discuss fitness and nutrition related questions and motivate each other: