stress eating isn’t the only thing making you fat: how cortisol triggers weight gain

This is probably the last news that anyone who is already stressed wants to hear, but… feeling anxious or under pressure is tied to gaining body fat and not just because of all that ice cream stress eating at 4 p.m.

The real culprit behind stress making you fat? Cortisol.  

When it’s at its best, cortisol is a steroid hormone that functions to mobilize fuel stores for energy, as well as regulate sleep cycles and the immune system. When you’re under stress, cortisol is released from the adrenal glands, which…

  • Breaks down stored fuel and increases blood sugar, giving the body a burst of energy
  • Stimulates adrenaline release which increases heart rate and blood pressure

Combined, these processes are called the “fight or flight” response. 

Getting chased by a lion? No problem, that acute stress will stimulate the breakdown of carbohydrates so your cells can utilize that quick energy to run away fast! It will allow your heart to beat faster and harder so you can get blood to your limbs (run, legs, run!) quickly. 

Once that perceived threat has gone away (the lion stops chasing you), cortisol and adrenaline levels should go back down, which returns heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels to normal. 

The problem is that the body doesn’t know the difference between needing to run from a lion and getting cut off in traffic — so the stress response in the body is the same, no matter the type of stressor we’re under.

Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced, high pressure culture, many of us remain in that “fight or flight” mode constantly, and this chronically elevated stress level is what is associated with a host of downstream problems.

Here are three of those “downstream problems” associated with stress that lead to gaining weight.

Cortisol causes blood sugar dysregulation

When 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 clears that glucose right up. But, in the presence of cortisol, insulin is suppressed. 

This means when you’re stressed and when cortisol is present, glucose is being dumped into the blood AND insulin is not present to shuttle it away back into cells. As a result, you experience elevated blood sugar levels for prolonged periods of time. 

Cortisol causes stress eating and can lead to body fat gain

Not only does cortisol wreak havoc with your blood sugar, but it also has a way of fueling cravings for high carbohydrate and/or high calorie foods. Why? The same cellular responses that keep your blood sugar up also send signals to the brain that they are “starved” for energy and therefore in desperate need of bread or cheese.

Think about how smart that evolution is: 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. 

Elevated cortisol causes visceral fat gain

Visceral fat is the fat that surrounds the important organs in the abdomen. Fat cells in and of themselves are not “bad,” but when they pad the most important organs of our body, it can change the way those organs function. 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.

This might look like a higher waist measurement or an apple-shaped body in people with chronically high stress. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes — so that phenomenon by itself is fine‚ but what we also know is that the fat that surrounds those organs in the abdomen does not function the same as the fat that pads your limbs underneath your skin. Visceral fat is more inflammatory, meaning it can release hormones of its own and it disrupts the functions of your organs. 

Cortisol is basically acting 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. 

One final, important note: stress may cause fat gain but not all stress is bad. We will never live a life without any stress. In fact, having some stress is good as it leads to motivation and drive to do well! A chronically elevated state of stress is what causes problems. 

Do you think that stress is holding you back from meeting your fat loss goals?