Anytime you encounter stress, your body responds with an amazing combination of biochemical reactions. Now just imagine all those reactions firing as many times as you have a stress event. If you’ve read Part 1 of this short series, you know this is all about stress and the impact on your body as it specifically relates to fat.
As dreadful as what follows may sound, you have options and can break the stress-fat link. I’ll share that with you later in the article.
Early-on during a stress event, a hormone is secreted that acts to decrease/suppress appetite. Then further along in the stress event, an entirely different hormone releases that acts to increase appetite.
You’ll find out all the details in a moment.
You may tend to eat more when you’re highly, or chronically, stressed. The point here is the appetite-suppressing hormone doesn’t seem to win that particular battle.
On the other hand, I have experienced a reduction of my appetite during times of high stress. It’s not always a reduction, but I recall those times when it happened.
The Stress Response Starts Here
There’s a part of your brain, the hypothalamus, that swings into motion when you perceive or experience stress. This brain region then releases a hormone, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH).
This hormone is the driving force behind the human stress response.
And it’s just the beginning.
Incidentally, CRH is released during medical conditions resulting in inflammation. There’s a narrow range of CRH concentration in which desirable effects occur. Deviation from this range, either above or below, can have undesirable effects.
CRH is responsible for the release of yet another hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone, which makes its way to the adrenal glands thus causing the stress hormone, cortisol, to be released.
The name for this process is the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis. The end result, at the bottom of the image, is cortisol.
CRH’s activity is not confined to the end-result of cortisol secretion. CRH impacts other parts of the brain to cause the following:
- It suppresses appetite
- Increases anxiety
- Improves memory and selective attention
The Original Purpose of The Stress Response – Which was Great (a million+ years ago)
If all that sounds just so negative, and you’re left wondering why it happens, remember that it’s the way your body reacts to stress. Ages ago, and even today in some situations, external stress included things like threats of attack and actual attack by wild animals.
So in that light, the stress response developed into a highly tuned process to prepare the body for fighting or fleeing.
It may sound great that CRH suppresses appetite. But that hormone would prove to ultimately ineffective if you took it to lose weight. Here’s why…
Yes, in the early stages of the human stress response, appetite is inhibited due to the activity of CRH.
Here’s the rub… CRH results in cortisol production that increases appetite.
And the amount of cortisol released as a result of this process is not a small amount and the effect can last for hours.
Another distinction between CRH and cortisol is levels of CRH return to normal within seconds; cortisol levels can take hours to return to normalcy.
After all this, it’s no wonder that some people, and maybe you, are constantly eating if there’s a high degree of chronic stress present.
The 21st Century Problem for Most People
The effects of stress-related eating are made worse if you live a sedentary life. You have an office job and sit for most of the work day. And then you’re too tired and stressed out to generate the motivation to work out. The calories from all that extra eating are not burned-up – and you gain weight and keep packing it on.
I talked about the scientific observation that visceral (abdominal) fat increases the most when it’s caused by stress-related over-eating. Those observations have been supported by additional research into the similarities between Cushing Syndrome visceral fat gain from chronically high stress.
The Chronic Stress and Fat Connection
I gave a detailed explanation of the relationship between weight gain and chronic stress in a previous post. But to recap:
In chronic stress situations, insulin and cortisol levels increase and signal fat cells to store fat.
Conclusion: stress impairs the body’s ability to let go of fat, release it, so it can be “burned up” or used as a source of energy.
Excessive and chronically high levels of cortisol totally wreak havoc with your metabolism, and in many more ways than one.
Check this out:
Metabolic Effects of Elevated Cortisol on Weight Gain
1. Blood sugar levels increase with the following:
- Lowered insulin sensitivity
- Greater appetite
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Impaired ability to transport glucose into cells for use as energy
2. Greater levels of body fat:
- Amount of body fat, in general, increases
- Higher amount of visceral (abdominal) body fat
- Body fat actually redistributes to visceral area
3. Muscle mass loss:
- Decrease in protein synthesis as a conservation measure to make more amino acids available for glucose production.
- Lower rate of metabolism; fewer calories are burned-up throughout the 24 hour period.
- Muscles, ligaments, and tendons are consumed (broken down) so amino acid building. blocks can be used for glucose production.
You’ve learned more about how your inherited, biochemical stress response can make you fat and keep you fat. Realize that your stress response mechanism was not “designed” for the 21st century lifestyle.
Stress events stimulate the release of cortisol and that puts everything in motion for retaining fat, keeping it in fat cells rather than releasing it for energy burn and consumption, and the redistribution of fat to the mid-section.
A sedentary existence makes it all that much worse.
The very best thing you can do is get rid of the stress in your life. Are you laughing because you know this cannot be done? I get it.
OK, if you can’t get rid of the stress, then change your lifestyle. You don’t have to do a complete makeover; that will only create more stress.
Get up and move.
Walking is effective and better than nothing.
You can do that – you have the power to do it. So why not?
Additional Support to Counteract the Effects of too Much Cortisol Due to Chronic Stress