Stress doesn’t just pack on the pounds, it also increases your appetite, drops your metabolism, increases cravings, lowers your libido, disrupts your sleeping patterns, and throws your hormones out of balance. According to recent research, if you are stressed and can’t lose weight, there might be a protein to blame! Stress can actually make it harder for the body to break down body fat.
How Does Stress Make You Fat?
Unlike adrenalin, which draws on your fat stores for energy during stressful situations, cortisol consumes your muscle tissue for fuel. Prolonged stress can, therefore, lead to muscle wasting and high blood sugar simply because your body is struggling to adapt. When these conditions take over, stress becomes extremely destructive to your metabolism, body composition and wellness.
NPY (a neuropeptide) also plays an important role in controlling your eating habits because it affects the appetite center in your brain. Once released, NPY decreases your metabolic rate, causes more belly fat storage and also fuels your appetite for sugary foods and carbohydrates – a triple whammy for your waistline and your fat-loss efforts.
So many side effects of stress conspire to make you fat! Together, high cortisol and elevated NPY impact your metabolism, appetite and body composition in the following nasty ways:
• Cortisol depresses your metabolic rate by interfering with thyroid hormone
• Both fuel your desire for fatty foods and carbohydrates
• Both boost abdominal fat storage
• Cortisol depletes your happy hormone, serotonin, causing depression and more carbohydrate cravings
• Cortisol can cause blood sugar imbalance, resulting in hypoglycemia and symptoms of shakiness, irritability, fatigue and headaches between meals
• Cortisol causes you to eat more than you need to by stimulating appetite-boosting NPY and blocking appetite-suppressing leptin
• Cortisol saps testosterone, which can result in languishing libido and a host of serious health risks
• Cortisol eats away muscle and slows repair of metabolically active muscle cells
• Excess cortisol leads to sleep disruption, a known cause of weight gain
• Cortisol blunts the growth hormone that helps build metabolically active muscle, aids tissue rejuvenation and slows the effects of aging
• Cortisol and NPY both decrease cellular sensitivity to insulin, resulting in elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance and accumulation of abdominal fat
Through a complicated network of hormonal interactions, prolonged stress results in a raging appetite, metabolic decline, loads of belly fat and a loss of hard-won, metabolically active muscle tissue. In other words, stress makes us soft, flabby and much older than we truly are!
Combat Stress with The Anti-Stress, Anti-Aging Hormone – DHEA
Also produced by the adrenal glands although opposite in effects, is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a precursor to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone and one of the most abundant hormones in our body. This hormone with the very long name has a big list of benefits to match. It is known to support healthy immunity (particularly autoimmune functions), aid tissue repair, improve sleep and counteract the negative effects of cortisol. It influences our ability to lose fat and gain muscle. It boosts libido and helps us feel motivated, youthful and energetic – just a few of the reasons why DHEA is often touted as the anti-aging hormone. DHEA naturally declines with age, excess cortisol and illness and is often taken in supplements.
If your DHEA levels are too low, you may experience:
• Increased body fat and weight gain
• A decrease in muscle mass
• Loss of a sense of well being
• Bone density depletion
• Low libido
• Poor ability to handle stress
I support the use of DHEA supplements, but only in low doses and only when a true deficiency has been definitively diagnosed via blood or saliva testing. Taking too much DHEA can trigger an unwelcome increase in testosterone and estrogen, which leads to increased cancer risk, hair loss, anger, aggression and acne in both men and women. Women may also experience masculinizing effects such as a deeper voice and abnormal growth of facial hair.
To optimize your cortisol-DHEA balance try these lifestyle, diet and exercise recommendations:
Lifestyle Activities to Lower Stress Hormones
1. Learn how to relax with:
• Deep breathing exercises
• Positive affirmations
2. Kiss someone you love. Studies have shown that kissing actually lowers stress hormones.
3. Get a massage. Massage is an excellent way to reduce muscle tension, lower stress hormones and boost immunity.
4. Try acupuncture. Regular acupuncture treatments lower cortisol and boost endorphins, our body’s natural pain reducing hormones.
5. Seek counseling or psychotherapy. Cognitive therapy is particularly useful in stress reduction. It encourages the participant to modify thinking patterns that contribute to stress. Changing your thoughts causes a change in your emotions. Changing your emotions can lead to a change in your hormonal state.
6. Start a journal. Rather than dwelling on your negative thoughts or worries, write them down. When you find yourself lying awake at night worrying about all the stuff you have to do, get up and write a to-do list.
7. Nix negativity. Surround yourself with positive people and avoid negativity.
8. Learn to say no. This is a tough one for many people but get in the habit of putting your physical and emotional health before your need to please others.
9. Make regular to-do lists. Writing down and prioritizing that mountain of daily tasks and activities can make tackling it feel less overwhelming.
10. Create routines. Some people benefit from making a weekly schedule of tasks to help them stay organized. Be sure to account for fun time. Sometimes scheduling-in downtime makes it more enjoyable because it eliminates the tendency to feel guilt about putting off other things you think you should be doing.
11. Find a hobby. Incorporate activities that you enjoy into your weekly life. Do something fun on your own or with friends and family.
12. Laugh. A lot. Watch your favorite funny movies or shows (Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of my favorites for a good laugh). Spend time laughing with people you care about.
Eat, Drink and Be Stress-free
Here are a few simple eating tips to help you lessen stress:
1. Avoid excess caffeine. Excess caffeine (more than one to two cups per day in the morning) can cause an undesirable elevation of cortisol. Green tea is one of the few caffeinated products that is less harmful than others because it contains theanine, which blocks the effect of cortisol.
2. Meal timing and cortisol control. Protein should be included in every meal to maintain steady blood sugar levels. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels can intensify symptoms related to the stress response. The three most important meal times for cortisol balance are:
a. breakfast, which must contain 30 grams of protein and should be free of starchy carbohydrates to optimize energy, brain power and craving control;
b. the 2 to 4 PM meal providing 20 to 30 grams of protein, preferably whey based as it is has been proven to reduce cortisol and to lead to eating less in the following meal. This meal time is essential for adrenal gland recuperation as well, and it is often missed.
c. And your evening meal should be the only one that contains one serving contain one serving of starchy carbohydrates with protein to improve serotonin and cortisol balance in to the evening, which improves sleep. If you are under excessive stress – do not do a ketogenic or completely carb-free diet, it will increase your cortisol levels.
3. Exercise for cortisol balance. Too much, too hard, too intense, too often or too long of workouts can increase cortisol and cause more belly fat, rather than rid it. The perfect balance of a workout to prevent overtraining and elevation of cortisol is 30 minutes of metabolic strength training three times per week, walking 3 to 5 days a week for 1 to 1.5 hours in each session, and yoga 1 to 2 times per week.
4. Sleep for cortisol balance. It is impossible to restore your cortisol levels to a healthy state if you do not sleep properly or enough. When you sleep also matters as your body recuperates the most from stress between 10 pm to 2 am, while the adrenal glands are truly resting and not making cortisol to prepare for the next day. Sleep 7.5 to 9 hours, in total darkness and naked to optimize melatonin production. If you have any sleep disorder I recommend melatonin supplements at 9 pm nightly in a lozenge form.
5. Consider supplements for cortisol control. There are so many options – you can view your choices here in the excess cortisol section on my website. My favorite choices are Clear Cortisol, Clear Stress, and Melatonin.