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How Stress Wrecks Your Metabolism

Stress: arguably today’s most common -- and often purposefully ignored -- malady. It’s not all bad when it’s intermittent and transient, but chronic, relentless amounts are a different story. Here’s an example: Imagine raising a tall glass of water into the air. No big deal, right? Now, imagine if I asked you to hold it there for the next hour. It’s not heavy to lift-- but it sure is heavy to keep it raised for long periods of time. According to the American Psychological Association1, money, work, family responsibilities and health concerns top the charts as our most significant sources of stress. When I ask clients about stress levels, there’s a common thread of disregard, and even helplessness, about one’s stress. The response typically falls along the lines of excuses with a “Sure, I’m stressed, but…” or, often, comparison to someone that is going through a traumatic life event- the “it’s not as bad as so-and-so” attitude. The reality here is that stress doesn’t grade on a curve, and your stress, gone unmanaged, can truly wreak havoc on not only your health, but also on your fat loss efforts. Read on to learn about just a few ways that stress wrecks your metabolism.

Belly Fat

Ah, belly fat; the bane of our beach-body existence. If you are among those who feel like your get-lean plan is clipping along pretty well, with the exception of stubborn belly fat, listen up: your stress is likely at play. An interrelation between imbalanced cortisol levels (one of our stress hormones) and fat around the midsection has a real connection. Not only is it frustrating, but belly fat can increase your risk of several chronic diseases and cancer.2 It has even been found that women in particular may not have an adaptive response to repeated stress3, meaning that the not-so-favorable cortisol response contributing to a larger waistline does not normalize over time to our most common stressors that might be encountered every day. In other words, your level of normal might not be healthy and the over-booked calendar and constant quest to squeeze another errand into your schedule might be the very thing preventing you from comfortably slipping into your skinny jeans.

Out of control eating

The stress hormone cortisol is a “diurnal” one, meaning that optimal levels fluctuate throughout the day. Ideally, it should be highest in the morning, slope downward by midday, and gradually taper off into the evening, staying low at night. When we ignore our stress, this diurnal curve can get wonky and mess with blood sugar levels and appetite. Realize that one of cortisol’s main jobs is to make blood sugar to give you fuel to fight off what your body thinks is real, physical imminent danger (even though it might be traffic or a last-minute project given to you at work). When we don’t require a physical fight-or-flight response to our stress (and nowadays we usually do not) but we get a dose of hormone to do so, we might find ourselves reaching for the chocolate, chips, or carb-loaded comfort foods. On the extreme end, binge eating disorder can be triggered by stressful situations.4 It is important to stay in step and aware of any consistent cravings and out-of-control eating patterns to take action steps for addressing what’s really going on.


Are you getting 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night? I am amazed at how many people chalk up that concept as impossible. At Life Time, we consider sleep to be a critical part of proper nourishment. Yes, nourishment! Our bodies simply cannot function well (including fat loss mechanisms) when we are lacking optimal amounts of quality sleep. If your cortisol curve is flatter than optimal, as described above, or if it has a steep morning rise, it could be playing a role in insomniac tendencies and your lack of good, restful sleep.5 Additionally, if you find your sleep isn’t quite angelic and you find you could stand to be a tad nicer to your family after a long day of work, (cranky much?) excess cortisol6 could be to blame.


Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, which means it’s in the business of breaking things down. This isn’t all bad, but it can be detrimental if it’s chronically imbalanced and ignored. When we are too busy to slow down, increase awareness and purposefully manage our stress, (deep breathing, prayer, meditation, yoga practice, etc) we may be stoking the inflammatory fire. Additionally, dwelling on negative things can also contribute to this cascade7. Inflammation can contribute to challenges in our weight loss efforts, troublesome joint pain, and poor mood.8 It has even been shown to play a strong role in our cardiovascular disease risk.9 Chronic, silent inflammation is no friend to fat loss and vitality; stress management is, therefore, a keystone to your health. Therefore, intentionally work on controlling your thoughts and staying positive.

Social Support

Fueling your fitness and improving nutrition habits is usually more fun and more successful when you’re not doing it alone. If you tend to get anxiety or depression around others10, or if you feel like you’re not as sociable in groups as you would like11, it might be surprising to hear that your levels of stress hormone may be involved. Being on edge is no fun. Understanding and optimizing your unique cortisol levels is important for feeling like your best self, which in turn has a strong impact on your relationship with others. Having a solid support system to walk your healthy way of life with you can get you through the more challenging times in your fitness journey.

“Help! Stress is wrecking my metabolism.”

If you resonate with some of the issues described above, take heart: there are tangible solutions! You do not have to aim for the unrealistic goal of getting rid of all your stress to optimize your metabolism and results. However, you can and should take action steps to better understand and manage it. First and foremost, test! Knowledge is power and getting a grip on your individual cortisol levels is important for laying the framework of a structured action plan that is uniquely tailored to you. Secondly, get a solid grip on nutrition, ensuring your diet is full of plenty of non-starchy vegetables, quality proteins, and healthy fats. Also critical, supporting yourself with a quality multivitamin12 and fish oil is usually a great step as well. Third, get active! Exercise may help defend your body against some of the detrimental impacts of chronic, unmanaged stress.13 Objectively pinpointing your stress hormone levels can even shed light on the type and intensity of exercise that best suits your current metabolism. Lastly, implement a purposeful stress management approach, including proper and adequate recovery from exercise, to help you put down that heavy glass of water from time to time. It’s too important not to do so. Your outlook, attitude, and metabolism will thank you. With health concerns being in our top four sources of stress, be revolutionary in your proactive stress management and wellness approach. Your results are worth it.

Do you think stress is wrecking your metabolism? Do you want guidance about the best place to start? Get connected with one of our nutrition coaches today.

In health, Samantha Bielawski, Registered Dietitian, Program Manager - Life Time Lab Testing

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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