We’ve all heard about “stress eating,” but have you ever known the correlation between stress, your hormones and your weight? While for some it may suppress your appetite short term, long term it can boost your hunger.
When under a lot of pressure, our body’s can resort to it’s “fight or flight” response. Your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with stress, even if you haven’t, and as a result thinks you need to replenish those calories (even though you don’t).
Levels of our stress hormone, cortisol, rise during stressful times. In Paleolithic times, “stress” was often a physical stress, like being chased by a predator. The release of cortisol was essential in preparing our bodies for action. Cortisol increases alertness and decreases the need for sleep, while periodically stopping or slowing down other mechanisms such as digestion and metabolism. This stimulates gluconeogenesis, the process of creating glucose cells for our body to use as energy, and stimulation of fat and amino acid breakdown. While this was beneficial ages ago, our stresses now typically do not require bursts of energy for survival, but rather increase our drive for more energy merely to be stored and unused.
When first looking at the role of insulin and cortisol, it appears they have opposite effects. Insulin is used as a storage hormone—the body stores energy in the form of glycogen in muscles, and fat. Cortisol, prepares the body for action which moves energy out of stores and into readily available forms, glucose. While this is in fact an opposite effect on weight gain effects for short term, this is very different for long-term psychological stress. Under conditions of chronic stress, such as problems at work, sleep deprivation, etc., blood glucose can remain elevated for months, increasing our insulin release. Chronically high cortisol levels lead to sustained increased insulin.
Since insulin is one of the main drivers of obesity, there is no shock that chronically high stress levels are related to both an increase in BMI and abdominal obesity. Not only does this cause an increase in fat storage, but can lead to insulin resistance causing type II diabetes down the road.
In today’s society, where surrounded by constant stressors, reducing your load is difficult, but when looking at your health long-term, it is vitally important. Try exercise, meditation, therapy, and focusing on better sleep hygiene.