At one point or another, everyone experiences stress. Stress is your body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. We all experience stress, some more than others. That being said, bodies were designed to endure stress. The fight-or-flight response is part of what's allowed us to survive and evolve! However, longstanding or frequent stress can have negative impacts on our health. Meet the two key hormones involved in stress-induced weight gain:
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is your body's primary stress hormone, a steroid released by your adrenal glands when you experience stress. The release of cortisol can be triggered with any stressor- it gets your body ready for the fight-or-flight response. This involves changing the blood flow, stimulating the liver to produce glucose, and triggering the body to convert protein and fat into readily available energy. However, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to an increased appetite, cravings for fatty and sugary food, and distributing more visceral fat (storing more fat around your abdomen).
Insulin: The Fat-Storage Hormone
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas to regulate blood sugar. It transports glucose in the blood to the cells to use for energy. When the cells and liver have enough glucose, insulin then stores the excess glucose as fat.
How Cortisol and Insulin Work Together
Cortisol's role in a stressful situation is to quickly mobilize glucose reserves to provide the body with as much readily available energy as possible, which spikes your blood sugar. The last thing cortisol wants is to have insulin storing all of this glucose as it's trying to release it. Thus, cortisol temporarily renders cells insulin resistant. Cortisol tells the cells to ignore insulin until your body isn't stressed anymore, which tricks it into thinking it needs to make more and more insulin. Makes sense why you want to turn to sugary foods when you're stressed out!
Over time, consistently elevated cortisol, blood sugar, and insulin levels can lead to sustained insulin resistance, thereby leading to fat storage. Experience stress can also slow your metabolism, make you sleep deprived, impair your digestion, and even change your gut microbiome.
Combating Stress-Induced Weight Gain
Don't stress over what cortisol can do to your body! That's not the point of this post! Here are four ways you can prevent stress from sabotaging your health goals:
Exercise: just getting a little movement every day is so, so good for your physical and mental health. Engaging in regular exercise can prevent stress-related weight gain and may even "reorganize" the brain so that you can better cope with stress!
Eat Magnesium: Nearly HALF of Americans are deficient in magnesium! When you're stressed, the body loses more magnesium than usual through urine and sweat. It's a vicious cycle- stress causes magnesium depletion and magnesium deficiency amplifies stress. Eat magnesium rich foods like avocado, day leafy greens, whole grains, and black beans. Or, try taking a magnesium supplement (read labels or talk to a pharmacist, though, since some magnesium supplements can be used as laxatives)!
Target your nutrition: in addition to eating magnesium, eating foods with omega-3s (such as fish), protein and fiber rich foods can help you prevent and cope with stress.
Get sleep: the most effective stress-reducing strategy! Lack of sleep gets perceived by the body as a major stressor. Aim for 7-9 hours a night to let your mind and body rest- not just when experiencing a high level of stress but as often as possible!
Minimizing stressors in your life is not only good for your mental health, but your physical health too! It's vital to cope with stress in ways that work specifically for you. I'd love to know:
How do you deal with stress?
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