How stress makes us fat


The most productive thing I did this weekend was make a sandcastle, and build a moat around my husband’s feet buried in the sand. We smushed the sandcastle at the end and the moat ended up being a soggy ditch, but really who cares? It had been a long time since I splashed around in the water, blew bubbles, hula-hooped and been attacked by a water gun. Weather aside, I wasn’t sure why I didn’t let myself feel that way more often — like a kid, playing just for the sake of play.

I find I can get lost in a sea of to-do lists, tasks and goals, feeling more and more accomplished as I get more done. Somehow I’ve created a mental equation in my brain where ‘productive’ = ‘success’ and a negative association of ‘unproductive’ = ‘unsuccessful’ has taken root. I have to take a step back sometimes to remind myself that life isn’t a race, and ‘success’ isn’t worth it if you don’t have fun and enjoy yourself along the way.

I feel like most of us living in a big city get caught up feeling this way, in a state of constant stress, and it’s not only hurting our mental health but our physical health as well in numerous ways, one of them being weight gain.

So here’s the answer to the burning question, explained in simple terms:

When you’re stressed (either short- or long-term), your body secretes hormones to manage its response to stress. These hormones are made in the adrenal glands (found on top of the kidneys) and the key ones are: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

Adrenaline and norepinephrine take care of short-term stress. So if a tiger jumped out at you (yes, very common in Toronto), these hormones would increase your heart rate, blood glucose, blood pressure, and dilate the passageways of the lungs to ensure your brain and muscles get more oxygen and glucose. You need those two things when you want to think and act quickly. When the stressful period is over, the hormones will go away.

But what if that period of stress is never over? Your adrenal glands can’t differentiate between, “uh oh a tiger” and “uh oh I’m running late to my meeting”. If you constantly feel stressed and uptight, that’s where the last hormone, cortisol kicks in.

Cortisol takes care of long-term stress by increasing blood glucose levels to ensure you have enough energy. But what if that energy then isn’t used to run away from a tiger? What if you’re sitting at your desk all day, feeling rushed, uptight and stressed while your body continues to pump out energy for you? That energy won’t get an outlet or release!

Instead, that trapped, restless energy will backfire in the form of cravings, anxiety and worry. And here’s the kicker: since all that excess glucose (blood sugar) isn’t being used, it will simply get stored as fat.

And that’s not all. Here’s also what chronically high cortisol levels are doing to make weight loss difficult:

  • Decreased metabolic rate
  • An increase in belly fat
    • There are 4x MORE cortisol receptors here than anywhere else in the body
  • Depletion in serotonin
    • This is the chemical messenger in our brain that signals happiness
    • Carbs boost serotonin levels, increasing our appetite for carbs. So…bagel anyone?
  • Decrease in testosterone
    • Affects the ability to retain or gain muscle
  • An inability to fall asleep
    • When you don’t get enough sleep, it affects the hunger hormone (ghrelin) and the appetite suppressing hormone (leptin), making you hungrier the next day
  • Decreased growth hormone
    • Needed for muscle growth; muscle burns more calories than fat

Phew! And this is just a teeny peek inside the world of stress and the havoc it can create inside the body. I hope with this blog post I’ve triggered some of you to really focus on stress-management as part of your weight-loss plan, and not to underestimate the impact it can have! If you want to start today, simply toss out the to-do list for a few days this week, and go channel your inner 6-year old and lie in the park instead. I promise you, the world won’t end.


About Alina

I'm a Holistic Nutritionist based in Toronto, Canada and my official title is Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP). I received my diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. I'm a coach and an educator. Follow Alina on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for all of the latest updates.
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