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How Stress Gets in the Way of Your Weight Loss Goals

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The last few months may have resulted in a bit of the weight gain they call the “Quarantine 15.” We’ve certainly all seen ourselves indulging in a bit more alcohol and convenience food than we were before, which undoubtedly played an important role. But the stress that 2020 has brought has likely made a large contribution as well.

If you’re eager to shed the weight you’ve gained this year, it’s going to be just as important to manage your stress levels as it is to bring your diet back to reality.

It might seem that the connection between stress and weight gain is easy to understand. When we get stressed out we tend to eat foods (not of the healthy variety), drink alcohol, binge Netflix, and veg out. The junk we eat is like a drug we take to relieve stress. And on one level it works. It brings pleasure and sedates our discomfort.

And that’s when the scale starts to move in the wrong direction.

But if we change our habits, lay off the junk and excess wine, will that reverse the weight gain course?

Unfortunately it’s not always as easy as all that. Even without the extra junk food, alcohol, and unnecessary calories, stress itself can affect our ability to lose weight. It can even drive weight gain.

So let’s look at how stress affects our metabolism and weight gain.

Stress and Cortisol—the “weight gain” hormone

Cortisol is a hormone our body releases in response to stress. Our stress response (what you may know commonly as “fight or flight”) is activated when we feel threatened, physically or psychologically. While this is a necessary part of survival, even in the absence of daily concerns about wild animals, the little stresses we experience every day can cause this system to go into overdrive.

Surprisingly, cortisol will spike even when we simply believe we’re being threatened. When we worry about the future or think about things that haven’t even happened yet. Threats don’t even have to rise to the level of “public speaking” to kick off that stress response.

During real threats, cortisol is healthy and meant to protect us. But, if stress continues and becomes “chronic,” we experience chronically elevated levels of cortisol, leading to negative consequences on our brains and bodies — including weight gain.

Some Clues to Chronic Stress and Weight Gain

Why would a part of our physiology meant to protect us cause us harm? Two studies provide some evidence for the connection:

What leads to high levels of cortisol? It shouldn’t be a mystery at this point: chronic stress. Cortisol levels naturally peak in the morning when we’re waking up and then slowly diminish toward its lowest point after you’ve gone to sleep. People with chronically elevated cortisol were found to have less of this natural rhythm and, therefore, were found to be more likely to accumulate body fat.

To break it down: chronic stress = consistently high levels of cortisol = increased fat stores = weight gain.

Stress can stand in the way of your best efforts to lose weight. When you’re stressed you store. Period.

Stress and Your Sweet Tooth

Those of you familiar with how insulin works (removing sugar from your blood and storing it in your muscles and liver) may be interested to know that cortisol has the opposite effect. It raises your blood sugar. If you’re stressed, you want sugar for energy—which may help explain why stress makes you want to eat donuts.

When cortisol is chronically elevated, it can decrease our insulin sensitivity. The more sugar we have in our blood, the more we need to release insulin to store it. If your blood sugar levels remain high, your pancreas needs to keep pumping it out, causing your cells to start to ignore it—become insensitive to it.

A decrease in insulin sensitivity will lead to greater levels of insulin production, keeping circulating insulin high, and locking glucose into our muscles and away from our brain. That means that as we need glucose to power our brain, our body flips on our sweet tooth to get the sugar it can’t get from our glucose stores.

It’s a pretty nasty cycle: stress leads to cortisol, cortisol leads to high blood sugar, which leads to increased insulin production, leading to decreased insulin sensitivity, to greater need for insulin to clear blood sugar, which leads to high levels of constantly circulating insulin, causing energy stores to be inaccessible when we need them, which causes sugar cravings and sugar consumption, and once again leading to high blood sugar.

And all of this leads to weight gain.

It’s not that cortisol is “bad,”, but rather that too much of it gets us into trouble — which is why getting rid of stress in a healthy way is so important.

Managing Stress (and Weight Gain) Well: Workouts, Not Wine

We’ve all been there. The end of a long day when we want nothing more than a glass of wine or a piece of cake. It’s a quick fix for a daily problem. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with indulging now and again, but using these as a regular treatment for stress keeps the wheel of weight gain turning.

And even if you’ve got your nutrition and exercise habits on speed dial, stress may be hijacking your weight loss goals

Is there a better way to relieve stress than cake or cabernet? Here are a few suggestions that can ease both your sugar cravings and your stress level:

  • Meditation or reflection
  • Easy, healthy, and enjoyable ways to relax: e.g., go for a walk, play with your kids, listen to music, read a book, etc.
  • Schedule a workout at the end of your workday if possible. Nothing will help you release stress and anxiety more quickly than having to focus on using your body in the moment.
  • Re-evaluate and reset expectations for yourself when it comes to your work and career. Far too often people spend too long trying to advance in their careers only to discover they had enough long ago.
  • Maximize your intake of quality vegetables, protein, and good fats. Satiation is your best weapon against bingeing.
  • Let go of unnecessary things that keep you from slowing down in the evening and taking time for yourself.

The Whole Life Challenge and the 7 Daily Habits are a powerful tool for implementing strategies like these into your life. If you’re already playing with us, congratulations on moving towards a (relatively) stress-free life. If you haven’t yet played, consider what just a small dose of these things could do in your day and register for our next Challenge.

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Michael Stanwyck
Michael Stanwyck is the co-founder of The Whole Life Challenge, an idea that developed during his seven years as a coach and gym manager at CrossFit Los Angeles.

He graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy as well as a degree from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, and feels food is one of the most important parts of a life - it can nourish, heal, and bring people together.

Michael believes health and well-being are as much a state of mind as they are a state of the body, and when it comes to fitness, food, and life in general, he thinks slow is much better than fast (most of the time). Stopping regularly to examine things is the surest way to put down roots and grow.

He knows he will never be done with his own work, and believes the best thing you can do for your well-being starts with loving and working from what you’ve got right now.

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