Woman losing her stress weight gain

Grabbing a bag of chips OR cookies for comfort isn’t the worst way that stress causes weight gain. Real adrenal stress weight gain comes from actual physiological changes that happen when your body is under stress which set you up to pack on extra pounds. Weight gain caused by adrenal stress often appears as belly fat. Stress-related belly fat is among the hardest types to get rid of.

You can finally get rid of those stubborn pounds once you understand what’s going on in your body during long periods of stress.

Hidden pathways stress uses to drive weight gain

Science has shown that the body understands stress quite physically. When your body is under the effects of stress, it shifts the way it physically handles incoming food by burning fewer calories and storing energy primarily in the form of abdominal fat. We've evolved this way because our adrenal stress response enabled us to run for our lives, or stop and fight for survival.

The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol quickly mobilize energy production from carbohydrates and stored fats. But they also make the body less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full. So we inadvertently eat larger portions than normal.

These days we don't need all those extra calories for energy and that’s why they get stored as fat.

Weight problems are standard for those of us who are in a state of constant stress, operating under elevated or high cortisol levels for very long periods of time.

how chronic stress can make you fat

Adrenal stress and fatigue feed belly fat

Women with adrenal stress imbalances often develop a "spare tire" around their waists. 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 to help out.

Cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids and fat to prevent blood sugar from dropping too low, and to keep fueling your brain and body with energy in the absence of food. Cortisol maintains stable glucose levels in the blood, while insulin helps usher glucose into our cells.

But when we have long-term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood, but then all that extra glucose gets stored in the form of fat — primarily abdominal fat cells. Scientists know that fat cells have special receptors for cortisol. That’s a problem because there seem to be more cortisol receptors on belly fat cells than anywhere else!

And sadly, belly fat doesn't just "sit there" doing nothing. Incredibly, the fat itself becomes like an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response, spurring still more abdominal fat to be stored.

Woman pinching belly fat caused by stress

3 steps to control weight-causing high cortisol

Here are three steps you can take to heal your adrenal imbalance:

1. Eat well, and regularly.

Convince your body on a cellular level that it's not going to starve to death just because you’re stressed by eating good food at regular intervals every day. Plan for and eat three balanced meals and two (also balanced) snacks per day. Spread them out across the day to work with your natural circadian rhythm.

Cortisol follows 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.

When it comes to snacking, many women are used to loading up on sweets and caffeine because they're comforting and so easy to get. But this habit often leads to an even greater plunge in energy. Instead when you need a boost, choose micronutrient-rich foods that support your adrenals, like asparagus, avocado, cabbage, garlic, ginger and lean protein.

Chart describing eating to support cortisol levels

2. Balance cortisol with phytotherapy

Using the right plant-based ingredients helps reduce the negative effects of cortisol. Astragulus root, rhodiola, cordyceps and passionflower are highly effective in resolving adrenal imbalances because they adapt to your body’s specific needs.

Along with phytotherapy, consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin mineral complex that you can count on to supply basic, everyday nutrients that you can’t live without. 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..."

3. Pace yourself to promote healing

If you're tired, wired and overweight, try these ideas to lower your stress level and heal your adrenal stress so you can stop the vicious stress/weight-gain cycle:

  • Control the intensity of your exercise routine. If you already exercise regularly and feel good, keep it up. But if you feel exhausted all the time, ease up on the intensity to prioritize adrenal 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.
  • Check in on your sleep patterns. Many women claim that they're "born night owls." But there’s a reason for that! When your circadian rhythm is turned upside down, your cortisol cycle often follows, leaving you tired all day and wide awake all night. You can reroute this pattern by eating earlier in the day, ending all screen time by 8 PM, and getting to sleep by 10 PM. Set aside a little time to wind down and leave 8 hours for actual sleep. If you are struggling with sleep, melatonin or our product Serinisol can help naturally reset your sleep cycle.
  • Enjoy life and play. For once in your adult life, make having fun a priority! Many of us forget just how relaxing a few hours of joyful activities, or just a good laugh, can be. So today we are writing you a virtual prescription: Play today! (And do it tomorrow too).
  • Stop and take 3-4 breaths. Taking a few deep breaths through your nose slows your heart rate and calms the whole body. Find time throughout your day just for these few breaths, especially when you feel stressed. You always have time to breathe more deeply, even if it’s just for 30 seconds.

Let your body finally relax so it can release extra weight

We know how many responsibilities we as women have. It can seem impossible to carve out a minute for yourself but nothing is more important for your health — and the weight loss process.

But weight gain, insomnia and lack of energy are serious adrenal concerns for women. For many of us, the stress in our lives is intimately connected to our weight. After taking the time to restore the adrenals to their normal function, cravings disappear, energy is restored, and the body lets go of stubborn pounds without too much effort. Hurray for that!


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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.