Sussex Performance Centre

How Stress Makes You Fat

Stress is multifaceted, both psychological and physiological. It could be one of the main reasons you’re not achieving the goals you have set your mind on.

What Is Stress?

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Seven out of ten adults in the UK say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives. Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts.

People normally associate stress with psychological problems, like meetings, deadlines and family life (for example).

However, stress also comes from many physical factors as well.

Most notably, this can include food intolerances, digestive issues, under-eating; low micro-nutrients and even things like not enough sleep, dehydration, and low blood sugar. It is important to note that all stress (physical or psychological), produces cortisol (the stress hormone from your adrenal glands). Unfortunately, the body doesn’t differentiate between what causes the stress and it all ends up with the release of cortisol.

Before you start panicking about cortisol release, we must add that it is your body’s natural hormonal response that it is supposed to produce. Issues arise for many people when cortisol is chronically elevated above normal levels for extended periods of time.

What if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on?

It can derail your body’s most important functions. It can also lead to a number of health problems, including anxiety, depression and most notably; weight gain.

So What Actually Does Cortisol Do?

Think of cortisol as nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone. It works with certain parts of your brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Your adrenal glands, triangle-shaped organs at the top of your kidneys, make cortisol. It’s best known for helping fuel your body’s “fight-or-flight” response in a crisis. In nature, stress tends to be a lion about to chase you, rather than the stress of a big meeting coming up.

It does a number of things to the body to move it into a ‘fight’ response. It raises blood sugar, providing plenty of energy ready to get moving towards or away from the threat.

At the same time, it depresses your immune and reproductive systems.  It also breaks down protein, usually from muscle tissue, to make amino acids available for the synthesis of energy and the development of new protein structures in the future (once you are no longer stressed).

Why Could Cortisol Be Making You Fat?

In brief, short term cortisol is great. Long term cortisol, not so much. Our lives are now full of more stressful situations than evolution ever intended us to deal with. If your day is filled up with meetings or you’ve been stuck in the rush hour traffic on the way to work, you would know what we mean.

Add in to the mix physical stressors such as digestive issues, intolerances, lack of sleep and dehydration, and you will see an increase in your everyday cortisol levels.

If cortisol is high, blood sugar is high. If blood sugar is chronically high, then insulin must react against that situation.  This will result in an increase in fat storage.

Insulin’s primary function is to transport blood sugar into muscle and fat cells when sugar levels in the blood are too high. If your muscle cells’ storage is already full (because we’ve not exercised or been active) it will store this primarily in fat cells.

Not only will this excess storage cause fat gain, cortisol breaks down muscle which in turn will lower your metabolism (muscle is very metabolic!) and suppresses reproductive hormones such as testosterone and oestrogen; both key in health and training progression.

Finally, add in a low functioning immune system and you will be sick more often which will reduce your ability to therefore train. If you don’t train, the likelihood for weight gain increases!

What Should You Do?

First and foremost, life is stressful. Stress is here to stay so how can we work around it to become healthier and importantly happier. One, if not, the best way to combat psychological stress is to train and train hard! There is significant amounts of evidence to show that training reduces stress levels on a consistent basis. Just note that training should be structured, intense and in the correct quantity. Training for hours at a time will only fuel your stress levels.

Secondly, take control of what you are eating. Is the food of high quality? Is it processed? Does it include a range of vegetables? Fruit? The wrong food choices can cause chronically elevated cortisol levels. Alongside this, a dominant source of physical stress can be food sensitivities. In fact, it is estimated that three-quarters of the world’s population have a food intolerance or sensitivity. It is definitely something worth exploring if you have not done so already.

Thirdly, focus on reducing the obvious physical stressors we all face on a daily basis, such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and poor hydration. You will be amazed how these simple things, done consistently well, will make you feel.

So is stress making you fat?  Chronic stress, leading to chronic elevations in cortisol, could well be leading to higher body fat in a large majority of the population.

With cortisol elevating blood sugar levels, even without a high sugar diet, you could end up struggling with your weight. Let’s put a stop to that.

If you need a structured plan to improve your lifestyle, health, nutrition and fitness to get in the best shape of your life, speak to SPC about how we can help

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