Unraveling the Links Between Chronic Stress, Overeating, and Increased Belly Fat
Mismanaged stress creates a vicious cycle of weight gain and metabolic imbalances. First, stress changes feeding behavior, causing one to preferentially eat more processed and calorie-rich foods. Such foods in turn further activate the stress response.
Scientists in Spain showed that increased cortisol following ingestion of a sugary drink is independently associated with increased blood glucose, suggesting that cortisol also raises blood sugar. Even more troubling, elevated cortisol drives both insulin and leptin resistance—a hormonal pattern linked with increased fat gain, development of diabetes, and inflammation.
— Mike Mutzel MSc (@MikeMutzel) January 12, 2015
Fat Cells Start Manufacturing Their Own Cortisol
To add insult to injury, as the pounds pile on, the liver and fat tissue crank up cortisol production, which normally only occurs in the adrenal gland. (This effect is due to increased activity of the enzyme 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 1 or 11beta-HSD1.)
It should be no surprise then that many chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, are noted to have a stress component. But why is the stress response linked with such deleterious changes in our metabolism and feeding behaviors?
How Stress-Related Changes in Feeding Behavior and Metabolism Helped Caveman, But Are Making You Fat
Major triggers of the stress response include trauma, infection, emotional or psychological upsets, and even consumption of processed food. Actual stressors are not the only drivers of the stress response; perceived threats, including feelings such as loss of control, defeat, and work-related stress can initiate the same ancient life-saving mechanism.
The life expectancy of our hunger-gather ancestors depended upon the ability to rapidly redistribute energy to prevent starvation, predation, and infection. These three primary causes of a premature death are extremely metabolically expensive. Fighting off pathogens that have plagued humanity for centuries (i.e. tuberculosis, cholera, and diphtheria, etc…) took a lot of energy! In brief, the stress response helps the body shift energy—that is, glucose and lipids—away from low-priority metabolic tissue to supply the higher-priority, activated immune and cardio-respiratory systems. These are the ones required for immediate survival in a life-or-death situation.
Experts, who have studied how our bodies’ defense mechanisms have evolved, recognize that the original intent of insulin resistance and stress-related changes in feeding behavior were to protect the body. If our ancestors were unable to rapidly induce a robust shift in energy allocation to the immune system, they would be very vulnerable to lethal microbes, especially those that cause infection after injury.
However, what were protective mechanisms when life-threatening pathogens ran amuck then are no longer in our best interests now. Unfortunately, this genetic heritage of molecular survival switches may be maladaptive in a world where common foodstuffs can trigger them.
Tips to Cut Back Your Stress Response
There are many tricks to hack the stress response. Here are my favorites:
1) Paced Breathing. . Since stressors ramp up the hormonal signaling hub called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and prompt the release of adrenal hormones, which among other things pivots the nervous system out of the rest-and-digest mode of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) into that of the “locked and loaded” fight or flight sympathetic nervous system (SNS) mode, we need to make a conscious effort to engage in regular stress-reduction behaviors. (My favorite tool is HeartMath, learn more at www.LearnHeartMath.com).
Related Post:How Paced Breathing Can Help You Curb Cravings, Improve Gut Health, Digestion and Burn More Fat
2) Don’t Eat While Stressed. Although easier said than done, avoid eating while you’re in the “fight or flight” mode. Take a walk, exercise, or do some deep belly breaths until you calm down.
3) Practice Presence and Gratitude when you’re stressed. Psychological stress is ubiquitous. When faced with a stressful situation, I try to be present and aware of my body’s reaction. I start by wiggling my toes, slowing down my breath, smiling, and thinking about my daughter and dogs. If I’m able to do all these things, I can usually cut my stress response in half, and paced breathing will take me the rest of the way.
Here are some books I suggest reading to help with this process.
4) Take Nutrients that Help Inhibit the Stress Response. Myo-Inositol, taurine, GABA and L-Theanine (as suntheanine®) are my favorite tools to help increase activity of the “rest-and-digest” or parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
2) Dallman, M. F. (2010). Stress-induced obesity and the emotional nervous system. Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 21(3), 159–165. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2009.10.004
3) Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating and the reward system. Physiology and Behavior, 91(4), 449–458.