How stress makes you fat and what to do about it

How stress makes you fat and what to do about it

You know that stress makes you irritable, edgy, tired, and no fun to be around, but did you know stress can make you fat? It absolutely can, and you’ve got to address your stress if you want to lose weight, retain muscle, and feel energized.

In last week’s blog, I explained about insulin, the hormone that helps you store energy for later use. That’s the hormone you release every time you eat, in response to a rise in blood sugar. Today I’ll tell you about cortisol, the hormone that breaks down fuel and converts it to energy. That energy, or blood sugar, sustains your daily activities. If you want to lose weight, you need that system to be working efficiently. Too much stress — and too much cortisol — gets in the way of that.

Present-day stress is rarely life-threatening like it was in prehistoric times, but we still react by going into “fight or flight” and often stay that way for the entire day. The stress of too little time and too much to do, plus dietary and environmental stressors, emotional stressors, etc., day after day, can cause you to make too much cortisol, which becomes a problem.

While cortisol is necessary for fat-burning and has anti-inflammatory properties, too much cortisol can increase body fat and slow your metabolism by affecting thyroid function. It can also lead to inflammation, cause cravings, and generally wreak havoc with your metabolism. Too little cortisol can be a problem as well; the trick is to have the right amount.

There is a complex interplay between insulin and cortisol. Without explaining the pathways in detail, let me say that chronically elevated cortisol will make you more insulin resistant, which you probably recall leads to that spare tire around your waist. You’ll also lose muscle mass, your metabolic motor that helps burn fat.

The combination of high insulin because of poor food choices and high cortisol because of stress is a disaster!  

The results are that you’ll hang on to your fat and have trouble burning it off, neither being what you want when you’re trying to lose weight!

Here are two ways to manage your stress and reduce cortisol:

Consider using an adaptogen. These are botanicals that help you to keep cortisol in a healthy range. Contact us to learn about the top adaptogens that we carry.

Try different adaptogens until you find the one that is the best match for your physiology. You should feel more relaxed but alert, have fewer cravings, and feel more even-tempered when you find the correct fit for you.

Practice a simple breathing exercise.

The second significant ways to manage your stress and to reduce cortisol is to learn the simple breathing technique championed by the holistic physician, Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s called the 4-7-8 breathing exercise and it reduces the “fight or flight” response.

Here’s how to do 4-7-8 breathing:

  • Sit up straight and place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process.
  • Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of 4.
  • Hold your breath to the count of 7.
    Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making an audible “whoosh” sound. That completes one full breath.
  • Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of 4 breaths (after the first month, you can work your way up to a total of 8 breaths per session)
  • Sit back and feel how your body and mind has calmed down. Absorb that and move into your day, repeating as needed.

Keeping your cortisol at a healthy level, just like your blood sugar, is a vital part of losing weight and keeping it off. And whether you need to lose weight or not, reducing your stress will benefit you in many ways, not the least of which is it will make life a little sweeter.


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