Whether it's tension at work, a relationship in turmoil, caring for a sick family member, or some other draining responsibility — we all know that when things get tough, it can feel comforting to eat. Certainly over the long-term this quick-fix will lead to extra pounds, but it's not the only reason stress causes us to gain more weight.

There are actual physiological changes that happen in the body during times of stress that can predispose us to pack on more pounds than when we aren't stressed. These changes are rooted in our adrenal glands, which govern the stress response and many other fundamental bodily functions. When the adrenals are out of balance, the body prepares for disaster the best way it knows how — by storing calories. Yet if we restore the adrenals to their normal, healthy function, cravings disappear, energy returns, and stubborn pounds fall away without too much effort.

As our lives become increasingly more demanding, let's stop and take a closer look at how stress affects your weight so you can finally get rid of those stubborn pounds and get back to feeling like yourself.

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The hidden ways that stress drives weight gain

We usually think that "being stressed-out" is an emotional state, but the body understands stress quite physically. And one of the ways it physically handles stress is by being stingy about how it uses calories, storing them primarily in the form of fat around the abdomen.

Why we've evolved this way has a lot to do with living in the wild. If you were being chased by a bear, your adrenals shifted instantly into fight-or-flight mode, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the blood. The adrenaline and cortisol helped to give us superhuman strength and quickly mobilized energy production from carbohydrates and fats. Once the threat was gone, our instincts led us to refuel with calorie-dense foods that are most readily stored as fat. Under cortisol's influence, we are less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, and we eat more than we normally might.

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The problem is that this sequence of events takes place whether the threat is real or psychological. Since most of our modern-day stressors don't require fleeing or fighting, we generally don't need all the extra calories our bodies make available. What has also changed is that many of us exist now in a state of constant stress, operating under elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time.

Adrenal fatigue feeds belly fat

Women with adrenal imbalance often develop a "spare tire" around the waist. This happens for several reasons. Under normal circumstances, when we haven't eaten for a while, our blood sugar (glucose) drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenals to release cortisol. This cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids, and fat to prevent low blood sugar and keep your brain and body fueled with energy in the absence of food. Cortisol maintains glucose levels in the blood, while insulin helps usher glucose into our cells.

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When we have long-term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood, and the extra glucose that isn't needed for energy gets stored in the form of fat — primarily abdominal fat cells. Scientists have discovered that fat cells have special stress-hormone receptors for cortisol, but that there also seem to be more of these cortisol receptors on the fat cells in the abdomen than anywhere else in the body!

And sadly, belly fat doesn't just "sit there" doing nothing; it's almost as if this fat is itself an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response, spurring still more abdominal fat to be deposited. So the cycle continues unless we take steps to heal the adrenal imbalance.

Steps to control high cortisol

Some of you may have read our article on how to eat for adrenal health; everything we discuss there applies here as well. Here are a few key points.

Eat well, and regularly. If you want to convince your body that it's in no danger of starving to death, eat good food regularly. As explained above, cortisol is integral to maintaining blood sugar, so it makes sense that keeping your blood sugar as level as possible lightens the load on the adrenal glands. We recommend you eat three balanced meals and two balanced snacks per day, spread out across the day to work with your natural circadian rhythm.

cortisol cycle

See our diagram of the cortisol cycle for the effects of meals and snacks on cortisol.

When you eat matters too. Cortisol has a natural cycle that complements your circadian rhythm. Normally, cortisol is highest in the early morning and declines gradually throughout the day to help you get ready for sleep. Because eating always bumps up cortisol, it's ideal to eat your largest meal early in the day.

Keep healthy foods close at hand. Many women load up on sweets and caffeine because they're so easy to get. But this habit often leads to an even greater drop in energy. When you need a boost, make sure you choose micronutrient-rich foods that support your adrenals, like asparagus, avocado, cabbage, garlic, ginger, and lean protein.

Balance cortisol with phytotherapy The use of plant-based ingredients helps reduce the negative effects of cortisol. For example, astragulus root, rhodiola, cordyceps and passionflower are highly effective in resolving adrenal imbalance.

Tip Consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin mineral complex like the one we offer in our Adrenal Health Program. Adrenal expert, Shawn Talbott, PhD, writes, "When it comes to dietary supplementation for stress adaptation and cortisol control, the first line of defense appears in the form of a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral supplement..."

Pacing yourself to promote healing

We live in a multitasking world where we're expected to be on-line 24/7. From cell phones and e-mail to TiVo and Facebook, we rarely take a break. Restoring adrenal balance means taking time for yourself and slowing down. It may seem counterintuitive: we think being "on the go" all the time would help us to lose more weight. But if you're tired, wired, and overweight, it's likely you will need to lower your stress level and heal your adrenals to stop the vicious weight-gain cycle.

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Light-headedness and salt cravings can be a sign of adrenal fatigue.

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What do we mean by pacing yourself?

  • Sleep. Many women say they get a second wind after dinner, or that they're "born night owls." But when your circadian rhythm is turned upside down, your cortisol cycle can follow, leaving you tired all day and wide awake all night. You can avoid this pattern by eating less late in the day, ending all screen time (TV, computer, cell phone) by 8 PM, and making a point of being in bed, asleep, by 10 PM (striving for no fewer than 8 hours of sleep). If you are struggling with sleep, our product Serinisol can help naturally reset your sleep cycle.
  • Exercise wisely. If you already exercise regularly and feel good, keep it up. But for those who are feeling exhausted all the time, try easing up on the intensity for a few months while your adrenals are healing. And try to keep your heart rate under 90 beats per minute. If you don't exercise, try walking 15 minutes once or twice a day, especially after meals, outdoors if you can. Exercise helps to reduce stress, as long as you are enjoying it, but this is not a time to push yourself hard.
  • Play. For once in your adult life, make having fun a priority! Many of us forget just how relaxing a few hours of fun or a good laugh can be. So today we are writing out a virtual prescription for you: "Play!"
  • Breathe. Three to four deep breaths through your nose can slow your heart rate and calm the whole body down. Find time throughout your day to just breathe, especially when you feel stressed. Learn to recognize the signals that you need to take a break, and get some fresh air, have a cup of herbal tea, or simply put your feet up.
Let your body relax and release

In talking with women every day, we know how many responsibilities we have. It can seem next to impossible to take a minute for ourselves! But we also know that weight gain and lack of energy are serious concerns for women. For many of us, the stress in our lives is intimately connected to our weight. Our bodies are wise — when stress is the predominant state, your body will protect you by holding on to extra pounds.

You can coax your body away from "crisis mode" by healing your adrenals. Doing this often means taking more time for you — including paying more attention to what you eat, how you sleep, and how you live each day. You deserve every bit of it! And once you replenish your energy and calm your stress response, you'll be amazed and delighted by how the weight comes off!


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Further Reading

Hays, B. 2005. Chapter 19. Hormonal imbalances: Female hormones: The dance of the hormones. Pt. I. In Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine.