How Stress Can Make You Fat (the Role of Cortisol)

When was the last time you were chased by a bear? Unless you’re a park ranger or a zoo keeper (there’s always one smart-arse!) then the answer is most likely going to be never.

And that’s great. No reason for the body to activate that dreaded ‘fight-or-flight’ response then?

Except that’s not how it works in a modern world, where low-level stressors bombard us non-stop – daily traffic, work targets, irritating colleagues and/or family members, household bills, social media click-bait.

Sure, these things can’t compare to the sudden urgency of evading the afore-mentioned grizzly.

And yet…..

Your brain cannot tell the difference!

Please understand that your brain is designed to act in your best interests. It can’t rationalise nor differentiate between a genuine life-threatening event, or any other perceived danger or stimuli. It responds exactly the same way by releasing stress-hormones, including Cortisol (produced in the pituitary gland and released by the adrenal gland).

 

Cortisol is wonderful:

Much misunderstood; cortisol is a fantastic hormone whose effects can be harnessed to propel not just your fitness goals, but your wider development.

Think about it this way: we cannot develop as people without going through a certain amount of growing pain.

Mentally: we overcome our fears by facing them.

Physically: muscle is grown, and cardio-vascular fitness is increased by the strategic use of stress in the form of exercise.

In this context, cortisol allows the body to function optimally, and is critical to the mobilisation of fatty acids, glucose and amino-acids for use as energy.

In essence, cortisol is a catalyst for peak performance as it increases alertness, heart rate, blood pressure, and fuel mobilisation.

 

Gluconeogenisis:

A critical component of the fight-or-flight response occurs when cortisol triggers the process of Gluconeogenisis – the conversion of amino-acids (either ingested or stored in lean tissue) into glucose for quick energy.

This is why it’s important to consume enough protein in relation to physical activity. Don’t eat enough protein, and Gluconeogenisis will cause lean muscle to be broken-down into amino-acids.

This is the last thing you want, and also why consuming too few calories while on a diet, will result in you getting weaker and losing muscle. A caloric deficit, if not done carefully, is also a stressor.

 

Chronic Stress:

While cortisol makes a critical contribution to peak performance; excess or chronic production has a destructive effect upon the body.

When chronically elevated cortisol levels tap into the fight-or-flight peak-performance state too often, for too long, and with insufficient rest and recovery: the effects upon the body – that are perfect for overcoming a short-term stressor or stimulus – become detrimental to its wellbeing:

  • immune function is suppressed
  • lean muscle is catabolised (gluconeogenesis)
  • high blood-pressure is more likely
  • appetite is increased (particularly for fast-acting simple-carbohydrates and sugar)
  • fat storage is accelerated (especially in the abdominal area)
  • hyper-glycemia occurs (high blood-sugar) due to sugar cravings and gluconeogenesis

This can also lead to digestive issues and Adrenal Fatigue.

 

Comfort-Eating is NOT your Fault:

When we look at the effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels, it’s very easy to see how comfort-eating becomes a serious issue and a contributory factor to dysfunctional eating patterns.

Therefore, it’s not necessarily a question of us always being weak and too easily giving-in to food-cravings: this is hormonal!

The fantastic news is that hormone levels can be brought back into balance by a sensible approach to nutrition and by paying attention to stress. Or rather, our response to stress.

 

Change your Perception to Reduce Stress:

Stress is a fact of life and we must accept this. Being risk-averse, paradoxically, is the fastest way to view every event that’s outside our control as being ‘stressful’.

But what if you could choose to react differently?

The good news is: you can! Remember how the brain can’t distinguish between real or perceived danger/stress?

While that’s certainly true, it’s also true that our mind is perfectly capable of making the distinction. Our rational minds can override feelings of panic, confusion and overwhelm, by reframing what’s going on.

We can easily tell if something is genuinely life-threatening. If not, then it can be relabelled as:

  • exciting
  • exhilarating
  • developmental
  • character-building
  • an adventure
  • a challenge.

When our perception of something we once felt stressful, changes. So does the effect it has upon the body.

Understanding this, is key to reducing anxiety and bringing hormone levels, including cortisol, back to normal.

 

Strategic Use of Stress:

When you understand how cortisol affects the body, there’s no need to fear it. In fact, realising that it is pivotal to your personal development: the strategic use of stress can be harnessed to break through plateaus and increase both physical and intellectual capacity, while positively impacting your emotional wellbeing.

Why not challenge yourself to master a new skill, overcome a fear, banish a self-limiting belief, or build the body you always dreamed of having?

Read more: Forget Snacking: Answer Hunger With a Meal

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