Stress is Fat’s Best Friend

Written by Dr. Andrew Neville

The more you chase weight loss, the more metabolic problems you will create and the longer your healthy weight will remain elusive. Low-fat diets, calorie restriction, and excess exercise will all add to the metabolic dysfunction, worsen the adrenal issues, and prolong the problem. (You’ve probably already tried all those anyway.)

There are several mechanisms by which Adrenal Dysfunction or a stress response dysfunction can lead to weight problems. The majority of these problems lead to the gaining of weight, but there is also a percentage of patients who will lose weight and who have a hard time keeping weight on. 1) The ability to convert food into a universal form of energy in the body is compromised (my definition of metabolism); 2) The thyroid, the engine of your body, is suppressed; and 3) the main adrenal stress hormone, cortisol, makes you gain and hold onto fat. 

Suppressed metabolism

Simply put, we are all designed to eat food, digest it, absorb it, convert the smaller bits into a universal form of energy (ATP), and then use this energy to make our body go…to think, walk, breathe, and repair itself. Everything is dependent on this energy.

The metabolic process is regulated by your adrenal and thyroid glands; this then affects the mitochondria, which is the part of the cell that makes ATP. This process is compromised in one way or another when our body is in an active stress response. And if there is chronic stress over time, this metabolic pattern will remain, even if the stress is gone. 

Your thyroid

The thyroid is like the engine in your body. The stress hormone cortisol suppresses the thyroid at every level it can. When your engine slows, everything slows, which leads to all of the hypothyroid symptoms: fatigue, brain fog, constipation, depression, weight, etc. It’s as simple as that.

This may make you want to crank up your engine; however,  that would be a mistake. The adrenals act as the oil and gas in your engine, and if you crank up the engine without paying attention to the oil and gas, you will eventually cause trouble.

It may not be for a couple of months, or even a couple of years, but that engine will eventually run out of oil and gas completely, leaving you to crash again. Treat the adrenal problem first, fill up the oil and gas, and your engine will likely kick back in on its own.

Cortisol makes you fat

Chronic stress over time can overwhelm the adrenal capacity for  stress. During the initial stages of the stress response and Adrenal Fatigue, the adrenal glands produce elevated stress hormones, especially cortisol. The cortisol is produced as an appropriate response to the fight or flight stimulation. During fight or flight, we would need fuel and the major fuel of the body is glucose.

Eating food to provide glucose in an emergency situation would be too slow of a process, so the body has developed a storage form of glucose called glycogen. Cortisol stimulates the liver and fat cells to convert this glycogen back into glucose and release it into the blood stream so you can use it as fuel to fight the proverbial tiger (dealing with your boss, traffic, social media, the news—you get the idea).

In this fight or flight situation, the body senses the elevation of glucose in the blood. Insulin is then released by the pancreas in response to elevated blood sugar to assist in getting the glucose out of the blood. Were there an actual tiger to fight or to run from, you would burn off this excess blood sugar.

If there is no actual tiger to deal with, the excess sugar in the blood can cause damage. The primary mechanism insulin uses to lower blood sugar is to escort the sugar into the individual cells, open the door if you will. However, if the cells already have adequate fuel or sugar, they will hold the door to the cell shut. The cells become “resistant” to insulin. During insulin resistance, the pancreas produces increasing amounts of insulin to get the sugar out of the blood into the cells.

If the cells will not take in any glucose, the insulin then converts the glucose into a triglyceride. Triglyceride is molecule of fat plus sugar. The body then stores the triglyceride as fat in the body for use at a later date. Typical storage sites for fat include the hips, thighs and abdomen.

Fat in the abdomen is particularly sensitive to cortisol and is the preferred target for storage of triglycerides during stress. Increased deposition of triglyceride in abdominal fat leads to an increase in the size of the fat cells in the abdomen, which leads to increased belly fat. Research shows that abdominal fat is the most dangerous location for fat deposition.

Insulin resistance is also called Metabolic Syndrome and increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The pancreas has limited capacity to produce insulin and can become “exhausted.”  The exhausted pancreas can’t produce adequate amounts of insulin to handle the glucose in the blood. With limited insulin to manage the blood sugar, the sugar in the blood rises, leading to diabetes.

Bottom line

Ultimately, there are only two ways to raise blood sugar (and ultimately weight) in the body: eat food (especially sugar and carbs) or get “stressed.” Stress will increase cortisol, and cortisol increases sugar.

So what do you do about it?

  • Get your cortisol back in line by dealing with your stressors, improving your resilience to stress, understanding how your body is working and working with it. 
  • Stop suppressing  the engine of your body (thyroid) by staying stuck in a stress response.
  • Eat a hypoglycemic diet, which keeps your sugar and carbs on the low side. If your weight doesn’t want to budge, you can look at your sugar and carb intake and cut it in half again. That usually does the trick.

A final note for those who cannot gain or maintain their weight

Just a note for those of you on the other end of the spectrum: those who can’t hold onto weight. Your metabolism is a bit different in that you’re stuck in what’s called a catabolic state, a state of burning excess fuel so you can deal with your stressors. This is quite often controlled more so by adrenaline than by cortisol.

The key still is that you need to shut off the chronic stress response. Do that, and you’ll cut the adrenaline. Cut the adrenaline, and not only will you feel calmer and safer, but your weight will return in time.

The next step

Over one-third of my patients state weight gain is one of their primary concerns. Healing Adrenal Fatigue and regulating cortisol and stress are key factors in weight maintenance. Read more about my Bi-Level Approach to Healing Adrenal Fatigue here.


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