Can stress keep you from losing weight? In short - yes, it can. High levels of stress can wreak havoc on the body and cause hormonal imbalances. Whether or not you understand the ins-and-outs of cortisol, it's likely you've heard of it - cortisol is commonly known as 'the stress hormone' and is the partner in crime of our heart accelerator, adrenaline.
First, let's clarify the role of cortisol as it is necessary, and beneficial in the right amounts, for our overall health. Cortisol plays a vital role in reducing inflammation and regulating blood sugar. Cortisol levels change throughout the day as they should be highest in the morning to help us wake up and get out of bed, then they drop throughout the day and by about 10pm so that we can fall (when melatonin levels should be the highest).
Cortisol, in optimal amounts, also helps buffer the effect of insulin. This is important to continue to burn body fat for energy, while maintaining stable blood glucose levels. However, if cortisol is elevated for too long it can cause insulin resistance. Both an overproduction of cortisol, and deficiency of cortisol can impact blood sugar levels and thyroid function, triggering weight fluctuation and symptoms of low metabolism.
Here are a few major causes of stress:
When we are stressed, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode as the physiological mechanisms send a signal that there is a perceived threat. This is also known as the acute stress response. If you have ever been in a stressful situation, you know the feeling of instantly going into defensive mode. This is your body's way of responding to the perceived threat and it releases adrenaline and cortisol.
When cortisol is elevated, it sends signals to your body to suppress other nonessential functions as it perceives you are in a crisis, even if it is just a disagreement with someone and not an actual life threatening situation. One of the ‘nonessential’ functions that downshifts is your digestive system, which is why you may experience heartburn, upset stomach/stomach pains, loose stools or constipation.
While the internal response to stress may be similar physiologically, how we handle and respond to stress will impact each person a bit differently. Additionally, our response may be different depending upon the type of stressor. Times of high stress may lead to irregular eating patterns, poor food choices, or over-consuming comfort foods. For others, feeling stressed may cause them to completely lose their appetite and under-eat.
Either way, high stress times and elevated cortisol levels can impact our weight and how we metabolize food. Understanding that we are completely geared for survival, the acute stress response impacts your entire system and stress is the domino causing a negative ripple effect.
One of those ripple effects being hormone imbalance, which can result in hunger cues increasing, which for many leads to more stress eating and could ultimately result in developing insulin resistance and higher blood glucose levels. Some other negative side effects include digestive woes like stomach pains, diarrhea or constipation, trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. All of these things impact our metabolism, how we utilize or store food and can lead to a significant slow down in how your body utilizes body fat for energy.
So how can we combat this ripple effect from taking over our goals during times of high stress?
We must get to the heart of the stress and either change the situation or change your perception of the situation. Manage what is in your control, and work to let go of what is not. The best way to do this is to instill de-stressing activities and practice them consistently.
We knowit can be frustrating when you're trying to do all the right things to lose weight like drinking water, exercising and watching your food intake, yet nothing is changing. You may feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle after reading how impactful stress is on your ability to burn fat, but just remember these protective mechanisms are in place to help you survive this perceived period of famine.
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