When it comes to weight gain, most of us attribute the extra pounds and fat to eating too much of the bad stuff and not getting enough exercise. For the most part, this is accurate. Broadly speaking, most of us eat a diet full of refined foods and would rather hit the couch than the gym. But the fact that you showed up to read this article tells me that you're probably more motivated and informed about your health. You're probably also making a decent attempt to eat right, and move as much as you can (or at least you aspire to). If you've struggled with weight loss despite eating healthy and getting a decent amount of exercise, I want to explain another culprit of weight gain. Stress and stress' relationship to cortisol can and do trigger weight gain.
Stress, Cortisol & Weight Gain
This is really important to understand. Take away as much of this information as you can so you know how to buffer the effects of stress so it won't sabotage your health or the amount of body fat you carry.
First, take a moment to think about the things that stress you out. Is it work? Relationship concerns? A lack of sleep? A health condition? General anxiety? Financial concerns?
We live in a world where there is never a lack of opportunity for stress to rear its ugly head. Sometimes stress pops up when we least expect it, and sometimes stress persists to the point where we don't even feel the it anymore. Regardless of the role stress plays in your life, it's highly likely it will always be there to some extent.
You can start taking control of stress by understanding A) how it affects your body, and B) what you can do about it before it starts kicking in.
The Physiological Side of Stress
When you experience stress, especially the negative type, called distress, a few things start to happen in your body.
Let's say an event happens that triggers stress. And let's be honest, depending on the day, the "event" doesn't have to be that big of a deal for stress to soar to new levels. Regardless, stress kicks in.
What happens next?
Hormones are listening to these stress signals you're feeling. Cortisol gets call into action.
Cortisol's job is to protect you from danger. To do this, cortisol reaches out to your body on a cellular level to release glucose. Glucose can easily be used as energy to help you flee from danger (fight or flight). When glucose levels rise, your blood sugar levels rise, too.
Now that blood sugar levels are heightened, insulin gets called into action to help level off the high blood sugar levels. Insulin is a blood sugar regulator, and for all intents and purposes, a fat-storage hormone. The amount of insulin released depends on the amount of sugars you have circulating in your blood. In a very stressful event (or perceived stressful events), blood sugar levels rise high. Therefore, so do insulin levels.
Insulin anchors blood sugar levels back down. If blood sugar levels drop too low, hunger sets it.
Now you need some sugar to boost your sugar levels back up, so what do you reach for? A cookie? A can of soda? A bagel? A bowl of pasta? A chocolate bar? Usually anything that your body can break down quickly and easily to infuse your body with sugar.
After you boost your blood sugar levels again, insulin gets called back into action. Can you see how this becomes a vicious circle?
This cycle of stress response, especially if it goes on too long, almost always results in belly fat (even if you don't eat or reach for a calorie-free option, like black coffee).
What can you do to buffer cortisol, stress and weight gain?
I always assume most people are stressed to some extent. Sometimes it's periodic, sometimes it's constant.
This first piece of advice usually enrages people, but it will make sense if you just give me a minute to explain.
Eliminate Caffeine (at least for three weeks)
When I wrote The Belly Burn Plan, I asked that everyone eliminate caffeine. This is especially important if you gain weight through your belly area. Even in the absence of calories, caffeine naturally elevates cortisol levels. If your body is experiencing a lot of stress, caffeine will not help (especially black coffee, black coffee with 30 grams of sugar and even diet soda).
Some readers responded amazingly to the elimination of caffeine. Not only were stress levels more under control, but they slept better. One reader even lost 16 pounds with caffeine removal being the only change she made. That's not typical, but wouldn't it be great if you could get your arms around a few unneeded pounds by cutting out caffeine?
Make Sure Breakfast Has Fat, Protein and Fiber in It
Don't try to skimp on fat or protein in the morning. My diet is 100% plant-based and carb-rich, but always make sure I get plenty of protein, fat and fiber. When you combine all three macronutrients (protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates and fat) into a meal, you naturally slow how quickly food breaks down. When a food breaks down slower, blood sugar level don't spike.
If you are struggling with formulating a meal plan that will have all of these elements, but need to eat right for your body type, get one of my meal plans. They're all 21 days, really comprehensive and easy to follow. Plus you'll feel amazing eating right!
Get Good Sleep
Think of sleep as food. I know there are times in all of our lives where we can't get a full night of sleep, but when you have the opportunity to do so, do it. Your brain releases something called human growth hormone (HGH) when you sleep. In a good night of sleep, this hormone releases about five times (at the beginning of every sleep cycle). HGH is responsible for a lot of things, including fat metabolism, muscle development, and repairing all the wear and tear we impose on our body throughout the day.
Research has shown that when we don't get a good night of sleep (around 7 to 8 hours), cortisol levels remain elevated. Given all that you know by this point, that's not a good thing. In fact, I've worked with clients who are so stressed that they can't even feel the stress anymore. They're just burned out a need some TLC and restoration.
I'm pretty easy on people when it comes to stress. I can't just wave a magic wand and command someone to feel less stress or not be so anxious or "handle" things differently. But there are things you can do to make things a little bit easier on your body.
Start with your diet. At first it can be really hard. Your body will naturally crave things it's used to eating. Very often, those foods will spike blood sugar levels - creating that vicious cycle I mentioned earlier. So many people are living with either pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes that could otherwise be controlled by healthier lifestyle choices.
My advice to you is to give your body more TLC that you think it deserves. Just don't do it with donuts or sugary coffee drinks. Do it with rest, relaxation, spending time with people you enjoy being around, exercising and sleeping...of course.
If you're serious about making big changes in your life, schedule a consultation with me to discuss your goals and how my private client coaching might work for you.