7 Ways Stress Causes Fat Gain 
Sunday, May 3, 2015
LifeTime WeightLoss in Lifestyle, Metabolism, Paul Kriegler, Stress, Stress and Sleep, blood sugar, cortisol, fat gain, fat storage, insulin, metabolism

Stress is part of life - good stress, bad stress, and various versions of in-between stress.

Without stress, there is no life. There's nothing for our bodies to adapt to. The real problem most of us have, however, is too much stress in relation to our ability to bounce back from it. In short, we don't have enough chance to build resilience.

Don’t get me wrong. Some stress and some cortisol are necessary – even good (at the right times, under the right circumstances, for limited durations).

It's excess stress, which I’ll call distress, that takes a toll on us - our health and even our weight. In my experience, there are several ways stress negatively impacts body composition. When we understand the body's reaction and our potential choices, however, we can develop better resilience and ideally spend more time in a state of eustress.

Let's break down how stress acts on the body's metabolism and related systems. 

Distress flips a switch in your nervous system.

You know that feeling you get when you’re already overwhelmed and your boss puts another project on your desk? That initial reaction of fear or despair triggers a specific response from your brain: “The rate of work needs to speed up, or we’ll never get out of this situation alive!”

The perception of a new demand (or any number of changes we sense – external, internal, physical, and psychologically) forces our nervous systems to trigger hundreds of changes within our metabolic systems. 

To simplify, distress (i.e. bad stress) flips us into a general sympathetic nervous system response. Our pupils dilate, heart rate and blood pressure increase, our livers start pumping glucose into our blood, and we generally get ready to run away from the stressor or confront it head on. 

What does this have to do with fat gain?  A lot, actually. 

The stronger and more persistent the sympathetic drive, the tougher it is for your body to settle into a fat-preferring metabolic pathway. Frankly, your fuel of choice becomes glucose (sugar). The more sugar you burn, the less fat you burn. In this way, chronic distress makes it hard to lose fat. 

Distress disturbs gut function.

You need good nourishment – plenty of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, and water – to be healthy and run a smooth metabolism, right? You also need a healthy digestive system to absorb said nutrients right? 

Yes. Yes, you do.

Chronic distress and the ensuing sympathetic nervous response are known to disrupt normal digestive function.

That “gut feeling” you have when you’re stressed out about something isn’t just a phantom feeling. There are changes going on with your digestive motility and overall function – alterations which even appear to be unique to the type of stress and to be more pronounced in “stress prone” individuals. 

The bottom line is, chronic distress messes with optimal digestive function – probably enough to disrupt metabolism in ways that promote fat gain rather than fat loss over time. 

In fact, part of the reason I’m such a fan of smart detoxification programs is that by focusing (even for a couple weeks) on higher quality food, simple meal planning, increased fiber and water, adequate sleep and conscious stress management, individuals find it easier to lose fat because they realize they feel so much better when they’re more relaxed.

As part of their detoxification efforts, they create conditions that are more conducive to better gut function and a more relaxed nervous system. Even in that abbreviated amount of time, suddenly the harrowing task of accessing and metabolizing stored fat becomes easier for the body. Who knew?

Distress disrupts sleep quality and/or quantity.

The main families of chemical messengers responsible for helping us survive stressful situations - epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol – directly compete with the chemical substances the body uses to relax and rejuvenate. 

The natural rhythm of cortisol is to rise in the morning (to help awaken our bodies and minds for the day) and wane to very low levels around sundown. 

Conversely, melatonin levels are supposed to rise shortly after dark to help our brains achieve deep, restorative sleep. Epinephrine and norepinephrine mainly orchestrate the occasionally “fight or flight” response when needed.

Chronic distress tends to elevate cortisol and blunt production of melatonin, which ultimately disrupts sleep depth, length, and overall quality. 

The downside? A single night of disrupted sleep impacts metabolism substantially. It can decrease insulin sensitivity, increase cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods (like sugar), and significantly decreases mental and physical performance.(1) Add up the cumulative effects of un-managed stress, and you could be in for far more than simply lost sleep.

Distress modifies our appetites and food choices.

Do you still think “stress eating” is an issue of weak willpower? Evidence suggests elevated stress hormone alters our mood, food preferences, and appetite control mechanisms on a biochemical level. 

It makes sense physiologically. Your brain senses a stressful situation (threat) and responds with protective measures (sympathetic nervous drive) to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” Concurrently, your brain turns attention toward the most convenient and efficient energy sources – sugary sweet foods that tend to be prevalent nowadays. 

It’s a natural coping mechanism to choose the path of least resistance. When your body needs energy to deal with stress, processed or refined foods do serve as fuel for the fight. Unfortunately, it’s tough to lose weight or fat when fueling the body with these kinds of products. This brings me to my next point.…

Distress alters blood sugar control.

I mentioned that the major sympathetic nervous response in times of distress frees up stored energy to supply glucose for the brain, nervous system, and working muscles. Stress raises blood sugar levels - almost regardless of what you’re eating.

This response is vital to life, but it can be flat out sabotaging to body fat loss

When blood sugar levels increase (whether we ingest carbohydrates or dump glucose into the blood from the liver), the pancreas releases insulin to help cells take in glucose for energy production. Anytime glucose is available and insulin is plentiful, fat cells cannot let go of their contents easily. 

When blood sugar concentrations rise, nearly all our cells prefer to burn glucose for energy instead of fat. Stress changes our metabolism quite significantly at the molecular level whether we like it or not. 

The higher our blood sugar rises (from combination of diet and stress response), the more insulin will be released (assuming the pancreas is able to produce it), and the lower our blood sugar may fall in the next few hours. This reactive low blood sugar triggers pretty intense hunger or cravings for sweets in most people. You likely know the feeling. 

This whole rollercoaster effect is amplified by un-controlled stress, and it’s a tough ride to get off of.

Making short-term, high-stress situations worse is the observation that elevated cortisol concentrations contribute to the development of insulin resistance in the liver and possibly our muscle tissues. So, even if you’re careful about controlling dietary carbohydrates (especially sugars), unmanaged stress can still damage your metabolism at a cellular level.

Distress can limit muscle gain or maintenance.

Let’s say you’re caught in a situation where un-managed stress is frequently triggering your liver to pump glucose into your bloodstream (an unfortunately common scenario). Where do you get all that glucose from? The answer is mostly from breaking down muscle protein to use portions of the amino acids for the internal manufacturing of glucose (gluconeogenesis). 

You may use a small portion of raw material from triglycerides too, but the ingredients for gluconeogenesis are donated from structural proteins.  

This muscle breakdown is exacerbated when you’re also in an aggressive calorie deficit or have erratic eating patterns (i.e. long periods of time without ingesting essential amino acids). This is why it’s so important to have a smart nutrition strategy.

Without proper nourishment, the effects of stress tend to get dramatically worse. 

You can at least do something simple to combat the possible negatives of heightened cortisol by taking fish oil supplements. At least one study showed reductions in cortisol and fat mass and increases in lean mass after fish oil supplementation, regardless of other lifestyle or nutrition adjustments. These are encouraging results if you ask me!

Distress may trigger other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Misery loves company, right? Humans are social beings by nature, so it makes sense that in times of stress we tend to gather with like-minded folks to blow off some steam. Where do you go to socialize? With whom? What do you eat or drink while you separate from your worries?

If your answer involves going to a 2-for-1 happy hour that serves unlimited nachos and pizza bites, that’s fine, but you may have a tough time achieving your weight loss goals while you unwind. How about calling a friend who has a gym membership or who is always up for a walk and knows how to be supportive?

I know this is a lot to take in - and even more to act on. Don’t let this amount of information add to your stress. Pick one area above, learn as much as you can about it, and partner with someone you trust – like a qualified fitness professional. Use his/her guidance, support and accountability to be as resilient as you can be in the face of stress rather than push the impossible task of eliminating stress altogether.

The more realistic (and ironically, less stressful) intention you can set is, as Kelly McGonigal reminds us in her TEDTalk, make stress your friend – with the right perspective.

Thanks for reading today. Talk with a fitness professional or weight loss coach today to learn more about the impact of stress - and the solutions - for your weight loss journey. 

Cited: (1) Prasai MJ, Pernicova I, Grant PJ, Scott EM. An Endocrinologist’s Guide to the Clock. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96:913-922

 In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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