This is Why Stress Causes Fat Gain
Your body undergoes a big process when you are stressed. But, do you know it is one of the main causes for fat gain? In this post you will learn how that happens with your hormones and what is under your control to do about this.
Fat loss is affected any time hormones are “off” and in the first post of this stress series, you saw how quickly and how profoundly women’s hormones get off kilter when stress (and thus, cortisol) are high.
Because women have so many more hormonal fluctuations through the month and their lifetime (from pregnancy to menopause), they are much more sensitive to the effects of stress hormones getting out of whack.
For us ladies, the fat loss game gets dicey real quick as too much estrogen, too little progesterone, and of course low thyroid come in to play when we’re stressed out.
But before all of that interplay with thyroid, estrogen and progesterone, there is the high cortisol+high insulin trouble. This not only happens first, but because insulin and cortisol are master metabolic hormones, I recommend focusing your efforts here first and foremost for two reasons:
- They so profoundly affect so many other hormones that if you focus on a peripheral hormone like estrogen and neglect these master hormones, you won’t make much headway.
- These two hormones are the ones that give you the most biofeedback throughout the day. When you learn to listen, you can read the signals and make real time adjustments in meal frequency, meal content (particularly fiber and carb/starch/sugar intake), as well as make changes to sleep, training, and stress management.
Now, on to just how fattening is stress? (Psst….If you don’t want these hormone details, skip to Recap section below. Don’t stress, no one will know.)
Although cortisol is blamed as the belly-fat-muffin-top-making hormone, it is not cortisol alone that causes us to put down more fat.
It is the high cortisol AND high insulin combo what wages war on your waistline.
Here’s how high cortisol + high insulin makes fat loss a very tough battle:
- Elevated cortisol will down regulate insulin receptors and create or worsen insulin resistance.
In a nutshell: high cortisol over time makes it harder to lower your blood sugar thus you need more insulin around and then vuala, a larger, more frequent fat storing message is sent.
This effect is seen more when there is already some insulin resistance, such as in PCOS, Metabolic Syndrome or pre- or overt diabetes.
- High cortisol will increase inflammation through that body and this mucks up the works for nearly all hormone receptors. If you think of a hormone receptor like a key hole and the hormone the key, they have to fit together and turn smoothly to create the desired effect (like unlocking the door, or triggering an intracellular response).
Inflammation is like sticking gum in that key hole: you can probably get the key to turn eventually, but it’s not easy. This elevated inflammation is yet another way, high cortisol will worsen insulin resistance and make fat loss and blood sugar control harder.
- As if those two fat gain mechanisms weren’t enough, belly fat will actually create more of its own cortisol and inflammatory chemicals. This makes a vicious cycle inside a vicious cycle: high cortisol+inflammation+insulin resistance = more belly fat, and more belly fat = more inflammation and more cortisol. Yikes!
- On the flipside, decreased cortisol will reduce ability to stabilize blood sugar which will cause insulin resistance over time (highs and lows as you try to stabilize will cause insulin surges leading to insulin resistance). This effect seen in normal or underweight women with PCOS or insulin resistance. Yes, you can literally stress your way into insulin resistance.
Why This Is So Hard TO Get On Top Of
If any of this stress+insulin trouble sounds like you, then you know firsthand how hard it is to correct this. Part of the reason is that it quickly turns into a vicious cycle and these hormone imbalances continue to worsen each other – leaving you feeling like you’re fighting a no-win battle.
Here’s how it gets so tricky for fat gain with high cortisol+high insulin (insulin resistance)
1. Insulin resistance is both a cause and effect of high cortisol.
Vicious, vicious cycle when we’re stressed and not eating the best. Recall your last time of high stress with little sleep, all you wanted was a muffin huh? During these high stress times our cravings for both sugary and fatty foods go up as we try to stabilize our blood sugar and fight a modern day battle with caveman style stress responses when stress usually meant famine. Your nutritionist says lean protein and veggies but your hormones say: load up on the croissants and doughnuts.
2. Both high cortisol and insulin resistance create problems with the hormone leptin.
Leptin is a gatekeeper or fuel gauge hormone that is key in regulating your appetite.
The more fat we have the more leptin we have – and the more trouble we have lowering our food intake (aka it’s just hard to stop eating). Just like insulin resistance, you will develop leptin resistance where in you need more leptin to be released to get the message across. More leptin, more fat and more “feeling” hungry and less able to control food intake.
And more leptin also means more inflammation, which makes insulin resistance and cortisol problems worse. Over time, we get fatter and this of course leads to even more problems with both insulin and cortisol. Talk about a run away train!
OK, Don’t panic. And by all means, don’t stress!
Leptin and other hormones get a lot of attention as the thing to chase for fat loss – and they are important, don’t get me wrong.
But if I’ve made anything clear, I hope that it’s to focus on insulin and cortisol first before tackling other hormones.
If not, it is nearly impossible to get other hormones to balance out. I don’t call them “master fat loss hormones” for nothing. Get back to basics with controlling insulin (find your UCT) and cortisol (manage stress in all its forms).
Many experts advise focusing on leptin, but you can see from the above web I just weaved, how would one even do that? Focus on cortisol and insulin because you have the most control over those and you have the most feedback from them in real time. Leave the leptin, thyroid and estrogen details to your functional medicine doctor and save yourself the hair pulling. Or simply tackle them when you feel these two big guns are under wraps.
Recap: How To Get On Top Of This
High Cortisol+High Insulin Fat Trap
- High cortisol + high insulin/insulin resistance is the real fat gain combo. Do your best when under stress to not eat too much sugary/starchy, junk food.
- Do anything and everything you can to manage stress and your blood sugar. This is simply unique to you, skip the “nutrition rules” of 3 meals, 6 meals, don’t eat after 6pm, etc., and figure this out. Find your unique carb tolerance and meal timing (i.e. eat often enough for YOU)
- Know that what you need for meal frequency and carb intake will change for you over time, but if you use your symptoms to guide you, you can adjust. Have I linked to this blog enough? 🙂
- Prioritize stress management. Handle mental/emotional stress – in whatever way(s) you can. Sleep!! Avoid over training or overtaxing any one metabolic system (i.e. too much metabolic circuit work, too much interval/sprint training, etc.). Don’t overdo cardio or underdo calories (again, unique to you).
- Handle any other hormone or metabolic issues. Thyroid, autoimmune, PMS, PCOS, endometriosis, etc. These are all hormone imbalances that will be stressful for you if not kept in check.