Deadlines. Money issues. Relationship pressures. The deadline-driven digital world we live in has made stress an integral part of our lives. Apart from affecting mental and emotional health, stress can also affect one’s physical well being. The stress hormone, cortisol, has been linked to increased amounts of adipose tissue and can lead to weight gain.
The Asia Pacific edition of the ‘Staying@Work’ survey conducted by Towers Watson ranks stress as the No. 1 lifestyle risk factor – above physical inactivity and obesity, making it imperative that we tackle this risk factor.
Wondering how exactly does stress affect weight loss? Let’s hit the basics.
What causes stress?
The APA Stress report cites work and family responsibilities, the economy, money management, and family health problems as the top 5 reasons people are stressed out. Besides these, there are physical factors such as poor/lack of sleep, unknown food sensitivities, poor air quality, blood sugar dysregulation, and tainted water.
How does the body respond to stress?
When the body senses any stressor – an external stimulus, environmental condition, or an event that causes stress, it releases cortisol, a steroid hormone, produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex within the adrenal gland.
What does cortisol do?
Cortisol is the hormone of energy and alertness. It isn’t bad for you – as long as the body releases it at the right time. It is a diurnal hormone so levels must peak in the morning to feel energised; they must slowly drop through the day so you can fall asleep at night. In people with a normal cortisol cycle, this hormone helps burn fat in the morning.
How does cortisol affect weight loss?
Emotional and physical stress leads to continuous release of cortisol, which can hamper weight loss efforts.
The body reacts in three ways:
1. It makes cells less responsive
Cortisol affects the receptor sites of other hormones, making cells less responsive to signals. If the body doesn’t read the insulin signal, it may lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. If the brain can’t read signals from leptin, a hormone that is extremely important when it comes to losing weight, you can get leptin resistance. This can cause you to feel hungry all the time and lead to overeating.
2. It increases inflammation in the body
Cortisol increases inflammation throughout the body. This lifts the likelihood of storing visceral fat, the unhealthy fat that lies within the body and surrounds the organs. A “beer belly” exemplifies visceral fat. Higher the visceral fat, higher the release of inflammatory signals, resulting in a cycle of inflammation and storage of visceral fat.
3. It mis-manages hunger hormones
Cortisol negatively impacts weight loss as it dysregulates hunger hormones, mainly ghrelin and leptin. Leptin helps control the appetite, while ghrelin is released when one’s hungry. The combination of lesser leptin and increased ghrelin causes people to make unhealthy choices and over-eat. High blood sugar leads to insulin spike, typically followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar which results in release of cortisol to help stabilise blood sugar and thus, increases the level of hunger hormones.
There is a way out of the cortisol cycle! Here’s what you need to do to stay on track with your fitness goals:
Making time for a session of cardio is good, but overtly high-intensity workouts or overtraining can raise cortisol levels! Try brisk walk or sets of push-ups. Regular and requisite exercise also helps manage stress.
Research shows that constant dieting can spike cortisol levels rise by 18 per cent. This can also lead your blood sugar haywire, making you ravenous and prone to bingeing.
A study at University of Oklahoma showed that consuming the equivalent of 2½ to 3 cups of coffee while under mild stress boosted cortisol by about 25 per cent and kept it up for 3 hours. This can alter the body’s cortisol levels and affect weight loss.
Lack of sleep can affect weight loss. A University of Chicago study found that an average of 6½ hours of sleep each night can increase cortisol, appetite, and weight gain. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours.
Meditation & yoga
Mindful breathing exercises such as yoga and tai chi can calm your mind, reduce stress levels and curb impulsive eating. Meditation can also help reduce cortisol levels.
Reading, listening to music, and staying connected with family and friends can also help.