When you live with anxiety, stress, or grief, your body can produce chemical substances — like the hormone cortisol — that make your body more likely to store fat, especially around your tummy. Chronic stress leads to a continued release of this hormone over time. With cortisol pumping through your veins in response to stress, your body holds onto fat and tries to stop it from being released from fat stores.
Why Cortisol Can Make Your Gain Weight
Every time you’re stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your primary source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All of this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a risky situation (also known as the fight or flight response).
Basically, your ‘old brain’ which is responsible for motives (food, sex, relationship seeking, status), emotions (anger, anxiety, sadness), and behaviours (fight, flight, freeze) is the one that kicks in at this point and not the new brain (which is responsible for imagination, planning, over-thinking, rumination, mentalisation, theory of mind, self-monitoring).
So, when we’re in stress, our old brain thinks we are in imminent danger (such as just about to be eaten by some big beasty) and we go into fight or flight and our new brain which would normally monitor and regulate us takes a back step.
Once the threat has subsided, your adrenaline high wears off and your blood sugar spike drops. This is when cortisol kicks into high gear to replenish your energy supply quickly.
Cortisol and Why You Want Donuts & Choccies
And cue the sugar cravings…
Because sugar supplies your body with the quick energy it thinks it needs, it’s often the first thing you reach for when you’re stressed. Your body wants to feel better, so you’ll have your hand in the cookie jar before you know it.
The downside to consuming so much sugar is that your body tends to store sugar, especially after stressful situations. This energy is stored mainly in the form of fat around your tummy again (seeing a pattern), which can be particularly hard to shed – especially when we get to a certain age (I’m 47 years young right now, and I know this all too well). And so, the vicious cycle starts: get stressed, release cortisol, gain weight, crave more sugar, eat more sugar, gain more weight… which generally makes us stressed and happy and we go round in circles again and again.
Cortisol and Metabolism
Even if you’re not eating foods high in fat and sugar, cortisol also slows down your metabolism, making it difficult to lose weight.
In 2015, researchers from Ohio State University interviewed women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before giving them a high-fat, high-calorie meal to eat. After finishing the meal, scientists measured the women’s metabolic rates (the rate at which they burned calories and fat) and examined their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin, and cortisol levels.
The researchers found that, on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could result in an 11-pound weight gain in one year – so the best part of a whole dress size up in 12 months, just from being overly stressed.
Stressed women also had higher insulin levels, a hormone that contributes to fat storage. So generally, all-round bad news for weight loss and feeling healthy if we’re really stressed.
In addition to the hormonal changes related to stress, stress can also drive you to engage in the following unhealthy behaviours, all of which can cause weight gain:
Eating Your Emotions.
Increased levels of cortisol can not only make you crave unhealthy food but also to eat more food than you need or usually eat. You might find that snacking or reaching for a second helping provides you with some temporary relief from your stress but makes healthy weight management more difficult. We truly find that eating our emotions gives us a break from our feelings.
Reaching for Junk Food
When we are stressed, we tend not to plan our meals in advance (one of the things I highly recommend in my Feed Your Fairy Daily Journal). When we don’t plan, we tend to eat the first thing we see and/or what is readily available and accessible, which is not always the healthiest options. You’re more likely to head to Maccie D’s or grab some chocolate and crisps from the petrol station too… you don’t care enough when you’re stressed to fuel your body and add nutrients – it’s the ‘whatever’ mentality just to stop feeling hungry.
Hours spent sitting behind a desk, having all the demands of kids and the house, trying to run our own business etc. all can leave little opportunity for physical activity. Plus, again, when we’re stressed, we’re most likely to be in a place where we are bottom of our own priority list and it’s just too much effort to be deliberately physical too. Again, for obvious reasons this adds to us not being able to weight easily. We’re meant to move and not be sedentary, and, you know as well as me sweetheart, that when we’re exercising and working out, we’re less likely to sabotage ourselves with food.
When you are juggling a gazillion balls in the air, remembering to eat 3 healthy meals a day can drop down in the list of priorities. You might find yourself skipping breakfast because you’re running late or not eating lunch because there’s just too much on your to-do list. However, feeling hungry will zap your energy and again, make you reach for the easiest option and food heavy in fat, sugar, and carbs to just have a quick energy boost. What we need to aim for is 3 balanced meals throughout the day to keep us on a balanced energy level… and that’s the magic word: “balance”. Try to keep the idea of maintaining balance or levels throughout the day… if it dips too low you go into the danger zone of donuts and snickers bars.
Many women tell me that they have trouble sleeping when they’re stressed. And research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Feeling overtired can also reduce willpower and contribute to unhealthy eating habits. So all around bad news for any of us looking to lose weight or be healthy in general.
How to Break the Cycle of Stress and Weight Gain
All of the above we talk about constantly in my Feed Your Fairy Membership as well as the mindset and motivation behind being healthy and leading a beautiful lifestyle that will help you achieve and stay at your ideal weight (and so much more). I call them the Four Pillars – movement, sleep, hydration, and nutrition – they all contribute to helping you lose weight and keep it off.
Here are my top tips for weight loss from my personal experience and coaching thousands of women:
Make exercise a priority.
Eat healthier comfort foods
Keep healthy foods in the house
Put better choices at eye level
Practice mindful eating
Track your meals & snacks (my Feed Your Fairy Daily Journal is perfect for this)
Keep an eye on your sleep. 7-8 hours will help massively.
Drink 2-3 litres of water.
Eat the rainbow.
Actively search for stress-relieving activities.
A Final Word From Me
If your stress and/or stress-related weight gain is causing you distress or making it unmanageable to fulfil daily responsibilities, it may be time to say enough is enough, draw a line in the sand and take action.
My Feed Your Fairy membership is the perfect place to learn how to take care of yourself, focus on self love and self worth, practice the four pillars of good health (movement, hydration, sleep & nutrition), understand why putting yourself at the top of your own priority list is essential, and being in a like-minded community of empowering and nurturing women.
If you would like more information please go to www.feedyourfairy.com