How Stress Wreaks Havoc on Your Metabolism

Stress Metabolism

Many of us are familiar with the health effects of excessive stress including headaches, digestive problems, sleep issues, anxiety and depression.  But when it comes to weight and obesity, stress is an even bigger problem than you think.  Sure we know that stress in our lives can trigger sugar cravings, late night snacking, emotional eating, skipped workouts and reliance on processed fast foods but even if you have amazing willpower and discipline, stress is still having a serious and measurable effect on your health and your weight.  In other words, you could be eating a clean wholesome diet and doing a regular exercise regimen, but your weight does not budge, or at least not to the point expected for the effort put in.   The frustration for so many people in this challenging situation is palpable.  So what’s going on?

Simply, stated stress controls the biology of weight.

Stress controls key hormonal and metabolic processes that control weight gain.   To really appreciate this, we need to understand how our autonomic nervous system works (ANS).  This is the behind the scenes system that runs our body unconsciously, regulating our heart rate, temperature, immune system, organ function, hormones etc.  There are three parts of the ANS:  sympathetic nervous system (SNS), parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the enteric system.  For our purposes, we just need to focus on the SNS aka the “Fight or Flight” system and the PNS aka the “Rest and Digest” system.

When faced with a stressor, our body’s alarm activates the SNS and releases stress hormones including epinephrine and cortisol to help us either fight or run away from whatever is threatening us. Our heart rate goes up, digestion is slowed, immunity is suppressed, libido is sidelined, blood sugar becomes elevated and fat storage increases. In SNS, our emotions intensify to mobilize and take action, and the brain, which is hardwired to focus on negative stimuli, loads up fear and anger. All bodily functions not immediately essential are thwarted to some degree.    In the harsh physical environment in which humans evolved, it’s easy to see how these multiple system responses helped our ancestors survive.  But what’s the cost of this today with the chronic prolonged stresses of modern life?

Recent research shows that chronic stress cannot only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on our metabolism.  Among the effects are: 

  • Elevated blood sugar
  • Reduction in fat burning capacity
  • Increased insulin resistance
  • Leptin resistance
  • Inflammation
  • Decrease growth hormone
  • Decrease thyroid hormone
  • Decrease sex hormones

Any of these consequences alone are a perfect formula for obesity and weight loss challenges.  What’s truly fascinating is that numerous studies show that the negative effects of stress on weight are completely independent of calorie intake. In these studies, even when people don’t turn to high calorie foods for comfort, their metabolisms slow down, their calorie burning decreases, their hormones get out of whack, their blood sugar regulation goes haywire and weight gain ensues.  Stress, in other words, is a metabolism-destroying machine.

Most people only think of emotional stressors when they here the term stress such as: losing a job, the loss of a loved one, caring for an aging parent, a divorce.  While these life challenges are major stressors what many people don’t realize is that stress is also caused by day-to-day anxiety, depression, chronic worrying, negative self-talk, guilt and shame.  In fact, too often I witness how the stress of restrictive dieting and punishing exercise fueled by an emotional undercurrent of self-hatred or personal deficiency is a pivotal yet often overlooked contributor to weight loss resistance.

Even if your psychological stressors are low, stress is also caused by physiological challenges such as:

  • Undetected food allergies
  • Chronic infections
  • Insomnia
  • Environmental toxins
  • Chronic dieting
  • Excessive exercise

Any of these conditions alone can provoke a chronic stress response in the body and set you up for weight gain.

To be clear, the SNS gets triggered by any perceived threat or stressful situation, physical, emotional, real or imaginary – it’s all the same hormonal cascade.  Chronic long term SNS stimulation, which is what occurs in today’s pedal-to-the-medal living, impairs all of the body’s systems, which is why stress is at the root cause of many chronic degenerative diseases including obesity.

To avoid the harmful effects of living an overheated life, we need to learn how to activate the PNS.  The PNS response maintains the equilibrium of the body’s systems.  It restores the body to a state of calm and allows it to relax and repair.  PNS activation is the normal resting and healing state of the body, brain and mind and therefore the state where metabolism, hormone production, digestion, and fat burning are all optimized.

Learning how to reduce our fight-or-flight SNS load in our life and live mostly in the PNS is fundamental to any long-term weight loss goal.   Relaxation engages the circuitry of the PNS and quiets the fight-or-flight response.  To activate your parasympathetic nervous system, learn what truly makes you feel relaxed. For some, this means engaging in a hobby, hanging out with friends, doing some light exercise, or even just getting out into nature. Others find that techniques like yoga, deep breathing, meditation or massage help.

The path to true and lasting health goes beyond the food on our plates.  If you want to use the power of the mind body connection to lower your stress, achieve your natural weight and improve long term health, the optimal point of entry is the parasympathetic wing of the ANS. Healing through nutrition and exercise alone is challenging. The patterns set into our ANS need to shift in order to restore the body’s natural healing state.  Contemplative practices that explore lifestyle changes, changes in attitude, spiritual inquiry, emotional issues and / or personal situations that are holding you back or burning you out can have a powerful effect on the deep rooted patterns of stress and are key to optimal health and natural weight loss.

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