How Stress Can Make You Fat

Stressed Out!!!O.K., we acknowledge the title is a bit over the top, but didn’t it get your attention? No, stress alone won’t pack on the pounds, but there’s still truth in them thar’ hills. We thought we’d dig up some of the dirt on stress – fat and otherwise.

The fact is we think stress gets short shrift when it comes to the realm of health and wellness. As you know, we spend a lot of time talking about how our eating and exercising impacts our biochemistry. Stress absolutely, positively plays into this same picture. A great diet and diligent exercise routine are never wasted effort, but chronic high stress can put a serious damper on the benefits you should be getting from your healthy endeavors.

Let’s examine stress as saboteur. First off, we all know that a moderate amount of stress is good – natural even. (Grok didn’t live in Pleasantville after all.) In the face of danger, the physiological “fight or flight” stress response was crucial to our favorite caveman’s self-preservation. Ah, the flooding of adrenaline (a.k.a. epinephrine) and norepinephrine, the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone, the emergency shut off of the immune system. We notice the sweating, muscle tension and the heightened sense of smell and hearing, the sudden increase in heart rate (getting uncomfortable yet?). All these helped our ur-selves either attack that Sabertooth tiger or run like heck—to get away from the snarling beast. Flip to modern day when the “predator” is more likely a passive-aggressive co-worker, catty neighbor, daily traffic jam, or looming pile of bills in the corner, and suddenly the fight or flight instinct isn’t as relevant or particularly helpful. (But there’s always the “vacation from your problems” ala What About Bob?…)

Stress today is more often a chronic low-grade condition than the powerful punch complete with cathartic end. (Maybe that’s why we love adventure-thriller movies so much?) That low level of stress day after day acts as insidious antagonist, aforementioned saboteur. That adrenal action described earlier? The constant release of cortisol, our star of the hormonal show, eventually causes major functions in the body to shut down or operate at only a subpar level – immune function, digestion, endocrine function, etc. Do you get sick more often when you’re under a lot of stress? We thought so. Wonder why so many people have digestive issues in this country (besides the prevalence of obesity)? Ever heard of adrenal exhaustion? Stress is nearly always a – if not the – major factor. Oh, and the list goes on and on. A chronically high level of cortisol and other stress hormones impacts the brain, compromising memory function (Where are those stupid car keys?!) as well as the balance of dopamine and serotonin instrumental for psychological well-being.

Yeah, yeah, you might say. What about the fat connection? The bottom line is this: research has demonstrated that stress can contribute to the build-up of body fat as a result of stress’s effect on hormonal secretion and its physiological consequences. Let us explain. Cortisol sets off an increased rush of glucose from your tissues (including breaking down muscle tissue to make glucose). Yikes! Remember, the body thinks something major is going down. In response to the rise in glucose comes the rise in insulin. You know the drill. Do this again and again, day after day, and what do you have? Insulin resistance eventually.

Stress and Dessert

In the meantime, the cortisol is signaling the body to store fat. (The body thinks it will need it after all.) Specifically, the body directs fat storage in the abdomen, around the organs, where there are more receptors for cortisol and a greater supply of blood.

A lot of research has been done on this in the last few years highlighting the contribution of stress to abdominal fat in particular.

And don’t think that you’re off the hook if you happen to be thin. A study out of Yale University looked at how thin women developed abdominal fat in connection with stress. Individual response to stress, not just “body shape” plays a significant role. Women in the study who reacted more severely to the study’s assigned stressors had more abdominal fat. The trend encouraged the researchers to suggest that in women’s case “it is possible that stress may influence body shape more than for men.”

So, where are the gentlemen in all this? The Yale researchers believe the same stress “relationships likely apply to men” but that it works within men’s tendency to accumulate fat around the abdomen anyway as opposed to around the hips, as many women do.

Ultimately, excess stress and associated cortisol levels can undo all of us, but we all have plenty of options to control the impact. As the researchers note, “smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise all contribute to greater abdominal fat.” Add to these other lifestyle factors like diet, sleep (duration and quality) as well as stress processing, and you’ve got plenty to work with.

For instance, research published last year in Nature Medicine highlighted the coinciding impact of a “high fat, high sugar” diet (always a bad idea) with stress on the release of a neurotransmitter, neuropeptide Y, which “increases fat cell proliferation and vasularization.” The researchers found “increased secretion of neuropeptide Y” when stress was coupled with the high-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. And so we’re back to where we started. Stress, by itself, does not make a person fat. Chronic stress, together with poor diet and lifestyle, will come back to bite you in the butt – or belly, we should say.

Stress Free Zone

Our suggestions? Choose a lifestyle that supports hormonal balance. Eat a low carb, high anti-oxidant diet, exercise according to the Primal Blueprint model (overtraining actually raises cortisol dramatically), and get plenty of sleep. Take omega-3 supplements to help counteract the inflammation damage related to stress. But as for the stress itself? Find stress relief practices that work for you. Experts particularly recommend spending time in a quiet natural setting. (What better way to unhook from the modern world?) Experiment with meditation options – however simple – whether prayer, guided imagery, or TM. (Check out our past posts on stress and stress relief.) Finally, as a complement to these efforts, consider a cortisol balancing supplement to help you get a leg up.

Thoughts? Anecdotes? Send ‘em our way!

Brittney Bush, thornypup, rick Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Stress, Cortisol and the Adrenals: When ‘Fight or Flight’ Meets the Modern World

10 Ways to De-Stress

7 Tips to Beat Stress Right Now

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11 thoughts on “How Stress Can Make You Fat”

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  1. Can insulin resistance be reversed? Just curious, my three kids stress me out all the time and I wonder if they are actually damaging my health permanently………….

  2. Excellent post…nothing to add.

    I am new to your blog, and I must say that I am very impressed with the consistent high quality of each post that I have read.


  3. There’s a book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Sapolsky, all about the way sustained stress and the related hormones damage us in manifold ways. It’s very accessible and quite funny, but also informative and a bit alarming . . . if you’re chronically stressed.

  4. Stress kills….why we need time off to relax…time off from work, tv, the media…just take a walk outside. It’s the chronic ongoing stress that we don’t know about that keeps our cortisol levels rising and insulin resistance building…leading to all sorts of increases in inflammation, blood pressure and heart disease factors. Stress is a mental game…one we can control and win. We don’t need to avoid it (as it can be everywhere) but we just not need to let things effect us in a stressful manner…to detach from them. That and taking Vit C has been found to help control cortisol levels.

  5. This is a special interest of mine. I have to take cortisol everyday because my ACTH does not respond. It’s interesting. I’ve learned what triggers a stress response(emotional, physical, bad food) and I have no choice but to “stress dose”. Cortisol is very calming if you need it.

    High cortisol also makes a person fat/run down because it pervents the thyroid hormone T4 to convert to T3(active hormone). Stay happy.

  6. Yeah, positive stress is also called eustress. It’s something that challenges you to grow.

  7. I like what you are saying here, although I am not convinced cortisol levels are elevated much in psychologically stressful situations. If you are in a fight or flight situation, your “adrenaline” goes up which is likely to cause your body to produce more cortisol to bring up your blood sugar level. But work or personal life stress will not affect adrenaline and your body is not likely to produce more cortisol for this anyways.

    Besides, all these topics about psychological stress are moot points. What matters here is physiological stress of the body due to low blood glucose levels.

    Cortisol is an hormone released by your adrenal? gland to cope with low blood sugar. Its produced to breakdown proteins and fats flowing through your blood and convert them into glucose (gluconeogenesis). High cortisol levels indicates that there is high demand for glucose in muscles/organs, and/or low supply from food digestion & fat burning.

    Another factor that can slightly affect cortisol is habit. In the morning, you generally need more energy to operate (especially with an empty stomach) so a lot of cortisol is produced. Before bedtime, not much energy is required as your body gets ready for sleep so cortisol levels are low.

    But I agree there is no point even focusing on cortisol, what really matters is that you maintain a proper blood sugar level by eating adequate carbs and dont exercise too long because when cortisol goes up due to those 2 things, your immune system is impeded.