You ever hear your friends say (or even notice on yourself) that whenever life becomes like a storm in a teacup, your weight seems to increase exponentially along with your stress levels?

Maybe it’s the increased stress that has you reaching for the box of Shapes biscuits (and eating three quarters of it’s contents because no one else is around to watch you)?

Or maybe you are like a friend of mine, who had me laughing the other week because she swears solidly that looking at anything that contains any type of sugar will somehow “soak into her pores and stay there as fat” (her words – not mine!)

Does weight magically appear on you the moment you feel stress appear? Or maybe you notice the old “creep-up” of weight that so many people talk about as if it were some creepy ex-partner who snuck back into your home without your knowledge (maybe they’re the one eating all of your Shapes?!) Regardless of this, there is a very normal reason that this happens and it has everything to do with Chemicals in our body and nothing to do with cake soaking into your pores*.

* Research is currently being undertaken to check this.

How Does Stress Make Me Fat?

We talked a lot about how stress hormones change your internal biochemistry in our article about Why am I so Tired all the Time?  High stress hormones affect your Blood Sugar levels which then make your body into a fat-storing machine! Remember that when Cortisol is being produced in higher-than-normal levels, your body sees this as a sign that something is happening and it might need to prepare you to be ready to deal with whatever that might be. So when this increase in Cortisol occurs, your body naturally slows down Insulin production (that’s your blood sugar hormone) in an attempt to leave as much Glucose (sugar) in your blood as possible – just in case you need to use that sugar in your cells for energy immediately. Very helpful if the stressful event you are facing requires you to fight or run away (the ‘fight or flight’ response).

Basically, your body is smarter than you think and it senses the large amounts of stress chemicals now floating through your body. It feels like something is about to go down and you might need to deal with it Pronto! So it stops you from using up all the sugar in your body and get’s you ready to experience ‘flight’ like you are running from a Lion or ‘fight’ like Britney Spears with a shaved head and an umbrella.

Now, this isn’t a big deal for your weight if it is controlled and less frequent. But many people I see in clinic who struggle with weight are suffering from chronic Stress (often without them even realising it) and they can’t understand how their weight is so “stubborn” or why it “creeps on” in an unexplained way.

If you image that your cells are constantly being surrounded by Sugar (because your stress levels are keeping it that way – you know – “just in case of emergency”) so your body tries to keep the balance by not letting your blood sugar get too high (don’t want to you turning into a Diabetic now do we!) If the sugar can’t get inside the cell to be burnt for fuel (this was Insulins’ job remember but Cortisol is holding it hostage) then your body will start to store your excess energy as fat, particularly around your stomach area.

This is one of the main ways Stress makes you Fat.

It is important to note that I am not discrediting a healthy diet and exercise for weight control, these are very important for good health, however it is not everything when it comes to weight loss.
You are a product of your hormones and they could be preventing you from hitting your goals.

What are 4 ways Stress makes me Fat?

  • It creates more ‘deep’ fat cells – Cortisol can drag some of your fats (triglycerides) out of storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (the ones under yours muscles, deep inside your body and around your organs). Not only that, but Cortisol helps immature fat cells (called Adipocytes) develop into mature fat cells.

    Great! Now not only do you have MORE fat cells, you also have lost all your immature ones. Now who’s going to take the blame for your terrible jokes?

  • More Fat = More Cortisol Production. An enzyme (called 11-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase for the nerds out there) converts Cortisone to Cortisol in your fat tissue. More fat cells may mean greater amounts of these enzymes, which means extra Cortisol production at the tissue level (which means not just at your Adrenals!) And to really kick us to the kerb, Visceral fat cells have more Cortisol receptors than subcutaneous fat (the stuff that is more on the surface).

    So basically, the more you stress, the more Cortisol you make. The more Cortisol you have, the more Insulin doesn’t work as well and you make more fat cells. The more fat cells you make, increases the amount the of Cortisol you make. And the process goes around again. Who wants to get off this ride already? But wait – there more!

  • High Blood Sugar + Low Insulin = Fat Storage. When your blood sugar is consistently high (remember those Adrenals are getting you ready for your big event) and your Insulin levels are being suppressed (all those stress chemicals), cells essentially become starved of their food source (which is sugar in the form of Glucose). Your cells are basically crying out for energy (and possibly so are you), and one way to fix this is to send hunger signals to the brain. Hello muffin-that-I-couldn’t-resist! Hello overeating.

    All of a sudden, your cells are flooded with more sugar and BAM – the unused Glucose is eventually stored as body fat. How’s that muffin looking now?

  • High Cortisol = Cravings. If your Cortisol is chronically elevated, then you might experience increased appetite (for the reasons above) and cravings for dense foods (salts, sweets, fats and carbohydrates). Studies have demonstrated a direct association between Cortisol levels and higher calorie intake in women.

    So now not only are you stressed, but you are craving all the things that are going to compound the issue for you. Awesome. 

Think you need more support?

Often these issues are very complex and as I treat everyone as an individual (we all have our own genetics, lifestyles and stressors), an in-depth consultation usually helps me get the information I require in order to help you on a deeper level. If you have been following our Adrenal Series and feel like this is you all over and you are ready to get someone else on your team to help you, get in touch with us or make an appointment online today.

Monique Kelly Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist