by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
- How stress can make us gain weight
- Belly fat: key symptoms of adrenal fatigue
- Number-one for your adrenal health: Eat right!
- Pacing yourself to promote healing
Whether it’s tension at work, a relationship in turmoil, caring for a sick family member, or some other draining responsibility — we all know that when things get tough, it can feel comforting to eat. Certainly over the long-term this quick-fix will lead to extra pounds, but it’s not the only reason stress causes us to gain more weight.
There are actual physiological changes that happen in the body during times of stress that can predispose us to pack on more pounds than when we aren’t stressed. These changes are rooted in our adrenal glands, which govern the stress response and many other fundamental bodily functions. When the adrenals are out of balance, the body prepares for disaster the best way it knows how — by storing calories. Yet if we restore the adrenals to their normal, healthy function, cravings disappear, energy returns, and stubborn pounds fall away without too much effort.
As our lives become increasingly more demanding, let’s stop and take a closer look at how stress affects your weight so you can finally get rid of those stubborn pounds and get back to feeling like yourself.
How stress can make us gain weight
We usually think that “being stressed-out” is an emotional state, but the body understands stress quite physically. And one of the ways it physically handles stress is by being stingy about how it uses calories, storing them primarily in the form of fat around the abdomen.
Why we’ve evolved this way has a lot to do with living in the wild. If you were being chased by a bear, your adrenals shifted instantly into fight-or-flight mode, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the blood. The adrenaline and cortisol helped to give us superhuman strength and quickly mobilized energy production from carbohydrates and fats. Once the threat was gone, our instincts led us to refuel with calorie-dense foods that are most readily stored as fat. Under cortisol’s influence, we are less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, and we eat more than we normally might.
The problem is that this sequence of events takes place whether the threat is real or psychological. Since most of our modern-day stressors don’t require fleeing or fighting, we generally don’t need all the extra calories our bodies make available. What has also changed is that many of us exist now in a state of constant stress, operating under elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time.
Belly fat: key symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Women with adrenal imbalance often develop a “spare tire” around the waist. This happens for several reasons. Under normal circumstances, when we haven’t eaten for a while, our blood sugar (glucose) drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenals to release cortisol. This cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids, and fat to prevent low blood sugar and keep your brain and body fueled with energy in the absence of food. Cortisol maintains glucose levels in the blood, while insulin helps usher glucose into our cells.
When we have long-term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood, and the extra glucose that isn’t needed for energy gets stored in the form of fat — primarily abdominal fat cells. Scientists have discovered that fat cells have special stress-hormone receptors for cortisol, but that there also seem to be more of these cortisol receptors on the fat cells in the abdomen than anywhere else in the body!