Have you ever heard that stress might be getting in the way of seeing the results you want?
It’s true – but you might also be wondering, “how does that even work”?
The quick answer – stress hormones (like cortisol). Cortisol works via a few mechanisms in the body and alters things like blood sugar, cravings and belly fat gain. Yikes! Read on for more details on each of these mechanisms so you can learn why you should really care about your stress.
stress hormones cause blood sugar dysregulation
Under stress, cortisol triggers the body to release energy quickly from cells. Your quick energy source is carbohydrate, which is normally stored in the liver and muscle cells as glucose. In the presence of cortisol, the blood floods with glucose and your blood sugar levels rise.
Normally, insulin comes along and picks that glucose up to move it out of the blood and into the cells (so the cells can use it for energy). But, in the presence of cortisol, insulin action is suppressed.
This means when you’re stressed, glucose is dumped into the blood and insulin is not available to shuttle it back into the cells. As a result, you experience elevated blood sugar levels for prolonged periods of time. This environment makes it difficult to access fat for fuel which would normally lead to fat loss.
stress hormones cause emotional eating
Cortisol has a way of fueling cravings for high carbohydrate and/or high fat foods. This is because the same cellular responses that keep your blood sugar up, also send signals to the brain that they are “starved” for energy. This happens because glucose cannot get into the cells since insulin is suppressed (what we just talked about above), and the body thinks it is in desperate need of fuel.
Your body is smart! It knows that celery and carrots won’t cut it for quick energy. You’ll crave easily digested and rapidly absorbed fuel – think candy, cookies, sweet beverages, cereal.
When your cells are starved for energy, signals get sent to the brain to eat the types of foods that will provide not only the most immediately accessible energy (carbohydrates), but the most rich energy (fat) by volume and weight. Ultimately, this combo, (especially if you’re not tracking macros and staying within your needs), can lead to body fat gain due to overconsumption of calories.
stress hormones cause belly fat gain
Belly fat, also known as visceral fat, and is the fat that surrounds the important organs in the abdomen. Fat cells are not inherently “bad,” but when they pad the most important organs of our body, it can change the way those organs function – which is problematic.
Elevated cortisol stimulates the breakdown of fat, but then that fat gets relocated to the fat cells that surround the internal organs of the abdomen. Cortisol basically acts like a child playing with legos: taking the neatly stacked legos from one pile and haphazardly putting them together in another. The legos no longer resemble a little town with buildings and skyscrapers, but rather a construction zone of half-built buildings and rubble.
Many of you will tell me “I don’t feel stressed” all while using coffee as a meal substitute, before rushing off to HIIT bootcamp class and forgetting to break for lunch between taking care of everyone else (except yourself). Then it’s wine to wind down and social scrolling right before drifting off to do it all again tomorrow. Do you see the stress now?
Your body reads and responds to all forms of stress in the same way, despite what you’re going through (because the body cannot tell the difference). This means that you might be getting a promotion, moving in with your s/o or working on a fun project that has you up early and in bed late. Your body doesn’t see that much differently than messy breakups, horrible bosses, or even chronic undereating and overtraining. Without intentionally trying to mitigate that stress through building habits that promote resiliency, you might still struggle to get strong and lean.
This is an often overlooked part of the health journey, which is why I’ve talked more about it on my Instagram account. Check out some tips for increasing resiliency here and some tips about stress that are specifically for ladies over 40 here.
I know you don’t really want to slow down on your full, fun life, and I don’t want you to have to do that either! By working to build resiliency to stress, you can keep up with all the things you want to do AND still see results towards body composition change.