I’m Stressed and Gaining Weight…What Gives?
You would think that stress and all that extra nervous energy would cause us to lose weight, but for most of us, the opposite is true! We gain weight even when we cut back on meals and food.
The Science Please
The body’s stress response (SR) is an amazing and highly adaptive neurological system. First, the SR system immediately ensures that our energy and resources are directed to cope with the actual (or anticipated) danger. Then when the danger has passed, the SR system stimulates our appetite so that we restore our energy reserves. However, when stressors are unrelenting the increased demand on the SR system takes a toll on our mind and body.
Initially after we experience a stressful event, the hypothalamus (Brian) releases corticotrophin-releasing-hormone (CRH). In turn this releases adrenocorticotrophion (ACTH) into the bloodstream that activates the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands release cortisol as well as norepinephrine and noradrenaline. Cortisol has a dual SR function. First it raises blood glucose levels in the body and brain to provide energy and alertness. It prioritizes our fight, flight, or withdrawal behaviors so we can slay (or run from) the dragon. In this phase it diverts the body’s resources away from less pressing needs (such as finding food). When the event has passed however, the second action of cortisol is to slow the stress response back down and decrease production of CRH. This results in a glucocorticoid rebound. This rebound stimulates hunger and an all consuming drive to eat (Sominsky & Spencer, 2014). FOr people with chronic stress, the system never really fully shuts down.
Simpler Science Please
A little more simply, when we’re stressed, cortisol (the primary stress hormone), increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and boosts the brain’s use of glucose. In this phase of the stress response we’re depleting available energy resources. Initially we have a drop in appetite but it’s followed by a crazy rebound urge to replenish reserves. At the same time elevated levels of cortisol increase our cravings for high carb (high-glycemic) food items making chips and cookies seem even more attractive (Ferreira et al., 2014).
Stress and Weight Gain:
There is activation and an increase of glucocorticoids
This results in increased appetite (via action in the hypothalamus)
Visceral fat accumulation increases
The brain becomes desensitized to leptin release (leptin signals us to stop eating)
It’s well known that stress causes or contributes to numerous illnesses and conditions. Metabolic disorder, obesity, heart disease and autoimmune disorders are among these. Stress also exacerbates psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder (McEwen, 2008). Throughout the Breakthrough! program you will learn to recognize your unique stressors, develop cognitive coping techniques, and practice stress reduction skills.