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Could Stress Be the Missing Piece in Your Weight Loss Puzzle?

Updated on June 16, 2017

If you find yourself starting to gain weight you'll probably focus on the two likely suspects, namely diet and exercise. In your rush to start munching on veggies and pump at the gym you may be overlooking an important factor: stress.

Moreover, going on an extreme diet, worrying about 'bad' foods, and obsessing about calorie-counting is likely to increase your stress levels.

Can stress really have a significant effect on your weight? A new study found that high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, are significantly elevated in people who are obese.

A new study supports the link between chronic stress, obesity and excess abdominal fat

In the study, published in the journal Obesity, cortisol levels were collected from a group of 2,527 men and women aged 54 and older. The participants were recruited for the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, taking data over the course of four years.

Previous studies that tried to examine the connection between cortisol and obesity depended on measurements of the hormone in saliva, blood, or urine. Those assessments of cortisol turned out to be inaccurate, because they change during the course of a day. Therefore, such studies could not reproduce long-term cortisol levels.

In the current research, cortisol was measured using hair samples. The benefit of using hair is that it gives an indication of cortisol levels over an extended period of several months. As opposed to a blood sample that only provides a snapshot of a moment in time.

The researchers also collected data regarding the participants’ weight, waist circumference and body mass index (BMI).

They scientists discovered that individuals who showed higher levels of cortisol tended to have a larger waist circumference, were weightier, and had a higher BMI. People who were classified as obese, based on their waist circumference (≥102cm in men, ≥88cm in women) or BMI (≥30) presented the highest levels of cortisol.

These results support the theorem that chronic stress is associated with higher levels of obesity. Moreover, the results link higher cortisol levels with a larger waist circumference. This is consistent with the notion that cortisol induced fat is stored mostly in the abdomen. This is especially important since excess abdominal fat has been linked with diabetes and heart disease.

Stress elevates the levels of the hormone Cortisol

What happens to our bodies and minds when we feel stressed? When our body thinks that we are in danger it activates an instinctive response mechanism that evolved to protect us: Stress hormones are released into our bloodstream. These hormones affect our muscles and our brain, making us feel pumped-up and ready to do whatever it takes to defend ourselves.

This acute stress response is called the fight-or-flight mechanism, and the hormone most associated with it is Cortisol.

This is useful in emergencies but in modern day society we seemed to have lost the ability to turn off the stress hormones. We are continually finding ourselves in aggravating situations: a traffic jam when we're already late, an approaching deadline, the final exam. It never seems to end. We get high strung like an athlete before an important competition, but we do not get the release that comes with the intense physical activity.

Stress can cause you to overeat and trigger fat and sugar cravings

In chronic stress the adrenal glands release high amounts of cortisol. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and is also associated with higher insulin levels. Elevated insulin may induce a drop in blood sugar levels, making us crave sugary fatty treats.

It has been shown that foods high in fats and sugars can really work as comfort foods: they do seem to counteract stress by causing inhibition of parts of the brain that are associated with the stress response. It seems that our body is simply trying to manage stress by telling us to eat foods that may actually help us. Regrettably, when stress is a constant companion this process is never turned off. Thus, overeating can become a persistent habit.

Needless to say, overeating isn't the only stress-related practice that can cause weight gain. Stressed individuals are also likely to exercise less, lose sleep and drink more alcohol.

Limitations of the study

The research only demonstrated a positive correlation between elevated cortisol and obesity. It did not show that stress-related cortisol elevation causes weight gain. Additional research is required to prove causation. Proving a causal link could be the first step in a new treatment for obesity, by targeting cortisol levels.

All of the participants in the study came from an older population, above the age of 54 years. It is possible that cortisol levels may behave differently in younger adults. It would be interesting to see if the results can be reproduced in younger people.

Could stress be the result of obesity, rather than the cause?

The measurements collected from the hair reflect the cortisol levels over the past several months. However, the obesity was probably developed over the course of many years. Therefore, these high cortisol values indicated that the obese people are currently stressed. This study can't say whether these individuals were stressed while gaining the weight years ago.

It may even be that these people are stressed because they are obese. Being highly overweight could be stressful for their bodies. Obesity is known to be a risk factor for several medical conditions, and it is known that health issues can elevate stress. There is also a possibility that the social stigma that overweight persons often suffer is causing them mental stress.

We may even be seeing a vicious cycle unfolding: Initially, stress may be one of the factors causing a person to gain a lot of weight. Next, that person starts to feel additional stress, related to being overweight. Such a process would form a positive feedback loop that is hard to break.

Dieting can cause stress

We are constantly bombarded with ads for the next fad diet claiming to be the best for losing lots of weight, fast. However, a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, tested the hypothesis that drastic dieting does not work because it increases chronic stress and elevates cortisol production.

The results were that dieters who practiced calorie restriction had an increase in cortisol values. Moreover, dieters who were told to continually monitor their own caloric intake reported increased levels of stress. Based on these findings the scientists concluded that dieting may be harmful to a person's psychological well-being.

Instead of trying fad diets or counting calories you could try incorporating gradual, healthy changes into your daily routines. Making small, sustainable changes to your life is not a quick fix but it's one that works in the long run. To learn more read How to Maintain Your Weight Without Diet or Exercise.

What is your preferred strategy for weight loss?

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Final thoughts

My preferred method of stress relief is dancing. Exercise in general is a good way to reduce stress, but I find dancing simply makes me feel happier. Perhaps it is also the healing power of music. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that dancing Tango was better for stress relief then doing meditation. In my profile you can find links to some of my favorite dance workouts.

I would love to hear about your strategies for dealing with stress, so don't forget to leave a comment.

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