Stress, yes stress, as you may have heard before, affects the amount of fat that the body stores or burns as a fuel source. This increased fat storage only occurs when we are chronically stressed. (Small amounts of periodic stress can increase metabolism and improve respiratory function. This chronic stress, like when we exercise too much produces negative effects such as gastrointestinal (GI) problems, decreased metabolism, increased risk for a heart attack, etc.1 We also need to understand that to the body “stress is stress”, the only two differences to the body is how intense the stressor and how long the stressor lasts. How does chronic stress cause weight gain and/or cause or worsen common health conditions? To answer this question, we need to first understand the autonomic nervous system. Which includes both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.

Sympathetic nervous system’s primary purpose is to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. This flight-or-flight response involves the stimulation of vital functions. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. This occurs mainly because your body ramps up production of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine to prepare the body for action. Such responses are seen during physical exertion or any stressful situations.

Parasympathetic nervous system’s primary purpose is to stimulate “rest-and-digest” activity. Therefore, it’s sometimes called the rest and digest system. It helps produce a state of equilibrium in the body. By conserving energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. Parasympathetic activities include, salivation, lacrimation (tears), sexual arousal, urination, digestion and defecation. Both are part of the greater Autonomic nervous system, responsible for involuntary and reflexive functions in the body.

Chronic stress can cause us to not only produce elevated levels of stress hormones but also to release elevated levels of these hormones far too often.  This increase in cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine creates a stress imbalance which triggers systematic low-level inflammation. The over production of the stress hormone Cortisol is of particular concern. This is because elevated cortisol levels can impair insulin sensitivity possibly leading to insulin resistance. Which we have learned from a previous newsletter is another significant weight loss barrier. High cortisol levels alone (not related to being insulin resistant) are also associated with fat storage.2 Over the longer term, chronically elevated stress levels may lead to your internal organs becoming depleted of the raw materials that they need to produce key hormones and neurotransmitters. This is referred to as adrenal burnout or adrenal fatigue.

To avoid chronic stress that could possibly lead to adrenal burnout us these tips for how you can overcome stress. Cutting down on sugar intake to less than 25 grams per day and eliminating vegetable oils from your diet are the two biggest changes you could make in your diet. Not only will these two changes reduce inflammation, but also, they will result in better overall health. Some other ways to reduce stress is getting regular physical activity, mindfulness training, spending time in nature, meditation or yoga, aromatherapy, and even just listening to music.

The last tip I’ll leave you with is to get at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night. Getting less than seven hours of sleep per night has been shown to raise your risk of weight gain. This happens due to the increasing levels of appetite-inducing hormones (ghrelin). Sleep and its effect on fat loss will be further discussed in next week’s article.

Sources and References

  1. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/305921.php
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2895000/
  3. http://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/abstract/S1550-4131(15)00462