If there’s one factor in life we don’t have complete control over, it’s stress. No doubt, it has a negative impact on your health. Studies have linked emotional stress with health problems like high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome. Whether it increases your risk for heart disease is still under debate, although it wouldn’t be surprising if it did.
Why is stress so unhealthy? When you’re stressed out, you might find yourself slipping back into bad eating habits and lying awake at night, unable to sleep due to worry. Eating the wrong foods and not sleeping enough in and of themselves are bad for your health.
And then there’s the question of what stress does to your body composition. Some people say they gain weight (and body fat) when they’re under stress. Is there any truth to the idea that it makes it harder to lose body fat and control your weight?
Stress, Weight Gain, and a Sneaky Protein Called Betatrophin
The most obvious way stress leads to weight gain is by changing your relationship with food. If you’re an emotional eater, feeling stressed can trigger reward centers in the brain that give you happy feelings when you eat fatty and carby foods. Munching on something sweet makes you feel better temporarily as the dopamine centers in your brain light up. So, you end up using food as a way to feel better. But this isn’t the only way it can mess with your body fat percentage. In a recent study carried out at the University of Florida, researchers identified a protein called betatrophin that changes the way your body metabolizes fat – and guess what activates it? Stress.
Although this study was carried out in mice, it’s likely that betatrophin has a similar effect in humans. Here’s how it works. When mice are exposed to stress from the environment or metabolic stress, they pump out more betatrophin. This novel protein blocks an enzyme called triglyceride lipase that releases fat from fat stores. When you haven’t eaten in a while or you’ve just completed a workout, you break down fat stores so cells can use the fat to make energy. That’s a good thing when you’re trying to lower your body fat percentage. But when betatrophin blocks this enzyme, it reduces your body’s ability to mobilize stored fat. Instead of being used as a fuel source, it stays in storage. Bummer! So, chronic stress could put a damper on your ability to burn fat.
Chronic Stress Can Increase Cortisol Too
Chronic stress makes it harder to control your weight in other ways too. You’re probably already familiar with the hormone cortisol. Produced by two glands that lie above your kidneys, cortisol has a variety of functions. The one you’re probably most familiar with is its role in energy regulation, the process of making sure your cells have enough fuel even during times of stress and famine. When you encounter danger, like a giant black bear chasing you, your body pumps out large amounts of cortisol. In response, your adrenal glands release glucose into your bloodstream so you have a ready source of fuel to fight or escape. Cortisol also triggers the breakdown of muscle so cells have a source of amino acids they can use as fuel should you run short on glucose.
When you’re under long-term stress, whether physical or emotional, your cortisol level may rise above baseline and stay that way. Not only does chronic elevation of cortisol lead to the breakdown of muscle, but it also sends more stored fat (triglycerides) to your tummy and waist, especially into the deeper part of your abdomen. This type of deep fat is called visceral fat. Unfortunately, this is the least desirable place for it to be from a health standpoint. Visceral fat is linked to heart problems and heart disease. So, chronically elevated cortisol can change your body composition AND harm your health. With more cortisol in the picture, you lose muscle mass and carry more of your fat stores centrally – in your waistline and abdomen
Here Come the Food Cravings!
To make matters worse, cortisol also increases appetite and food cravings. Not only does it directly stimulate hunger, but it also interacts with other hormones that affect your appetite such as leptin and insulin. Some people respond to stress with a sharp rise in cortisol while others do not. People who do are referred to as “high responders.” If you fall into this category, you’re more likely to eat more when stressed or anxious and experience weight gain and changes in body composition. If you tend to store fat in your tummy and waistline as opposed to your thighs and buttocks, you’re likely a high cortisol responder.
Unfortunately, a high cortisol level due to stress doesn’t just impact your body composition, it places you at greater risk for type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure and also suppresses your immune system. If you think you get more colds when you’re under stress, you’re probably right. Blame it on cortisol’s effect on your immune system. You’re healthiest when your cortisol level is in balance – not too high and not too low.
Control Stress for a Slimmer Waistline
Now you know how stress can add inches to your waistline. Unfortunately, we’re all exposed to it, on a daily basis. How can you keep it from impacting your health?
Exercise most days of the week. Moderate amounts of exercise not only slims your waistline – it helps keep your cortisol level in check. The key is not to over-train. Overtraining and not giving your body a chance to recover can actually raise your cortisol level.
Include a mind-body type of exercise in your routine. For example, research shows yoga relieves stress AND lowers cortisol.
Get at least 7 hours of sleep nightly. Skimping on sleep can lead to a chronically elevated cortisol level. At the same time, it boosts the level of hormones like ghrelin that stimulate appetite.
Learn to meditate. Research shows meditation helps rewire brain pathways that impact how you react to stress.
Develop a strong support system. When you’re under stress, it helps to have someone to talk to about it.
Listen to nature-inspired background music while you work. The sounds of nature – rain falling, crickets chirping, waves crashing on the beach – can be very relaxing and a good way to lower your stress level.
The Bottom Line
Stress CAN adversely affect your body composition and make it harder to maintain healthy body weight. Now you have a better understanding as to why stress management is so important.
Science Daily. “New Details Linking Stress, Fat Metabolism Revealed”
American Heart Association. “Stress and Heart Health”
Psychology Today. “Is Your Brain Hardwired to Crave Food When You’re Sad?”
Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 11 No. 11 P. 38. November 2009.
Harvard Health Publications. “Why stress causes people to overeat”
Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2001 Jan;26(1):37-49.
Harvard Health Publications. “Exercising to Relax”
J Affect Disord. 2006 Aug;94(1-3):249-53. Epub 2006 Jun 5.
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