Let’s say you’ve been hitting the gym 4-5 days a week and going HARD. On top of that, you’ve zoned in on the nutritional strategy that works for you and are making healthy food choices most days.
You’re looking to lose a few pounds, gain some muscle, and feel better in your body. But for some reason your clothes aren’t fitting any looser, and honestly, you’re feeling a little run down overall. What gives?
Well, it sounds like cortisol has hijacked your efforts to improve your body composition and is running the show. Keep reading to learn more about cortisol and how stress is stalling your weight loss.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is the main stress hormone in your body. But it’s involved in many body functions outside of just stress. While it has many important roles, it can also cause problems for overall health. Notably, it’s estimated that 75-90% of diseases are connected to stress (1).
But what exactly is cortisol doing in your body and how can it sabotage both your weight loss efforts and your general well-being?
Cortisol is made by your adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. It’s a major part of the stress response, but is also involved in (2):
- How your body uses carbs, fats, and protein
- Blood sugar levels
- Sleep cycles
The Stress Response
Your body learned to respond to stress in an environment where you may have had to fight for your life or escape dangerous predators. Therefore, in times of danger, your body produces the “fight-or-flight” response, which begins with a spike of the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), responsible for increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
Following this initial response, there is a spike of cortisol, which keeps the body’s alarm system on and causes a surge of glucose into the bloodstream, plus increased ability to repair body tissues. Additionally, digestion is suppressed in the stressed state, as this system won’t help you deal with the immediate problem of getting consumed by a wild animal (3).
Luckily, finding ourselves in the stomach of a predator is less of an issue these days. But our modern stressors are a bit more insidious and lead to greater concerns about what is finding its way into our stomachs.
Normally, once an intensely stressful event has passed, our hormone levels should return to normal.
However, in a society where we are managing: a pandemic, an ever-worsening climate crisis, the personal stressors of managing family, work, and finances, and the pressure to look like EVERYTHING IS FINE on social media…well those stress responses never have a chance to die down.
Instead, our levels of cortisol remain high and we are constantly ready to respond to the attacks of our daily lives. When it comes to how stress is stalling your weight loss, it’s this ongoing stress that is the big problem.
Overexposure to cortisol can result in tight muscles, high blood pressure, headaches, mood swings, mental health and cognition issues, and sleeping problems (3). But today, we’re going to discuss the four ways that cortisol affects your weight and how stress is stalling your weight loss.
How Stress is Stalling your Weight Loss
1. Cortisol is an appetite stimulant
Do you consider yourself a “stress eater”? Many people use food as a coping mechanism to manage uncomfortable emotions – women in particular, research shows (4). Cortisol can directly increase appetite by binding to receptors in the brain and by increasing levels of other appetite-related hormones (5).
Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash
Also, studies have found that stress-related weight gain is more likely to occur in people that are already overweight and dieting (4). So, if you’re someone who is trying to lose weight, particularly through unsustainable methods, you may be especially susceptible to the appetite-stimulating effects of cortisol.
2. You crave sugary, fatty foods
Unfortunately, cortisol doesn’t typically increase your appetite for a big plate of veggies. Many animal studies and several human studies have found that stressful events trigger the desire to consume high calorie, sugary, and fatty foods – what we typically think of as “comfort foods” (6, 7). These foods trigger the brain’s reward system. The result? Reduced stress and more positive feelings. Remember those news headlines comparing cheese to opioid drugs??
One of the most important principles of habit formation is that behaviours that are rewarded are repeated. The reward response in the brain when using delicious food to combat stress can cause a habit to develop. People use the coping mechanisms that have “worked” for them in the past – even if it means negative long-term consequences.
Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels
3. Your metabolism slows down under stress
How many times have you clicked on an article, Instagram post, or YouTube video claiming it will reveal the secrets to increasing your metabolism? Maybe it mentioned apple cider vinegar and cayenne pepper??
Well here’s a contributor to metabolism that’s actually backed by science: higher levels of cortisol are associated with lower fat-burning and higher levels of insulin, which increases fat storage (6, 8). Furthermore, higher insulin levels seem to increase the drive to consume high sugar, high fat foods, at least in animal studies (6).
A 2015 study found that when comparing individuals who experienced one stressor the previous day with those who had not experienced a stressor, the stressed group burned 104 fewer calories. Just this small difference could result in an 11 pound weight gain over the course of a year! (9).
4. Stress affects exercise, sleep, and alcohol consumption
Not only does stress affect appetite directly, it also affects other factors that influence our ability to shed pounds and maintain a healthy weight. Stressed people exercise less, which means fewer calories burned (10).
Additionally, stress can cause disturbed sleep, which has a multitude of effects on our health and weight, including increased levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone”. Losing sleep also causes people to be less active and crave calorically-dense comfort foods to make up for their lack of energy (11).
Finally, if you’re chronically stressed, having a beer or two after work to “wind down” may become a frequent coping mechanism and a source of empty calories.
What’s the Solution?
It would be great if we could reduce our cortisol levels on command. But unfortunately, stress-reduction requires consistent habits and long-term strategies.
The best way to combat stress depends on the type of stress you are experiencing. Check out the video below to learn more about the three main types of stress:
Essentially, the three main forms of stress are:
- Mental/Emotional – overwhelm, family issues, relationship problems, financial issues, etc.
- Physical – injury, illness, over-training.
- Metabolic/Physiological – excessive caloric restriction, poor quality diet.
Once you figure out what form of stress is stalling your weight loss, the problem becomes much easier to solve. We’re going to focus mostly on emotional stress, as this is the type that permeates most people’s lives. The other two forms of stress can often be controlled by a healthy relationship with food and exercise, including adequate recovery time (especially after an injury) and adequate intake of nutritious foods.
Check out the graphic below for a summary of some of the easy do’s and don’ts for keeping your cortisol levels in check. Then, read on for a more in-depth look at three ways you can reduce your mental/emotional stress.
3 Ways to Reduce Mental/Emotional Stress
The first stress-reduction strategy is something you may already be doing if you are trying to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. In research studies, it has been consistently found that participants feel calmer for several hours after exercising. These studies suggest that exercise improves the way the body deals with stress and also gives the individual a break from a stressful situation (12).
The recommended dose of physical activity is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week (12).
And remember, you don’t have to be lifting weights in a gym for it to “count” as exercise. Even going for a walk can be great exercise and can provide some extra stress relief because studies have shown that even 10 minutes outside each day can significantly reduce stress (13).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that exercise in itself is a stressor and temporarily increases cortisol levels. So pushing yourself through high intensity training every day with the aim of speeding fat loss will likely do more harm than good in the long run. Remember, exercise is meant to be enjoyable, not a punishment. Listen to your body and take time to recover.
In recent years, meditation has been one of the most common recommendations for stress reduction and improvement in overall psychological and emotional health.
Meditation has been connected with almost every positive mental health outcome you can think of (and even some physical outcomes, like increased immune health). This includes reduced anxiety, improved self-image, less self-judgement, improved self-awareness, greater focus, improved sleep, and of course, reduced stress (14).
When meditating, remember that you are not doing it “wrong” if you can’t clear your mind. The purpose of meditation is to recognize thoughts as they come into your mind and acknowledge them without getting carried away by them.
If this process sounds confusing or daunting, I highly recommend a guided meditation app, such as Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer. These apps have free meditations that break down the basics of mindfulness and meditation, and also have premium versions if you find that meditation is what’s been missing from your self-care routine!
Photo by Oluremi Adebayo from Pexels
In our society, we are constantly in pursuit of more. We often feel that what we have is never enough and each time we accomplish a goal, our reaction is to move the goal-posts further ahead. This lack of satisfaction with the current state of our lives can lead to psychological stress. A strategy that has been scientifically proven to reduce levels of stress is expressing gratitude.
When we practice gratitude, we show appreciation for what we have in the present moment. We may still aim to grow and improve, but we accept the beauty of our current situation and how far we’ve already come.
Studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal can increase optimism and improve relationships. One study even found that people who kept a gratitude journal exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor! (15)
So how can you incorporate more gratitude into your life? One option is keeping a gratitude journal, the method frequently used in research studies (16). Each day, try to write 3-5 things you’re grateful for. Aim to make these new items each day, so you are constantly looking for new things to appreciate.
Keeping Cortisol in Check
Nutrition and exercise are two of your most important tools for maintaining a healthy weight. But in order for these tools to bring you the best results, stress is another pillar of health you must consider.
You now know what cortisol is and how stress affects your weight loss if you’re not taking proper care of your body. Cortisol is not the enemy – it’s a vital hormone for life – but it can easily wreak havoc if you don’t take an active approach to managing stress.
Additionally, do your best to implement the three science-backed strategies above, or find your own stress-relieving techniques, and you’ll give your body the important reminder that it’s safe to relax and enjoy life.
Are you feeling stressed with all this talk about stress? If you still have questions about how stress is stalling your weight loss let me know in the comments! And comment below with your go-to methods for combating stress!
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- Mayo Clinic Staff. Chronic stress puts your health at risk. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037 [Accessed 28 July 2020].
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- Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other appetite‐related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6‐month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity. 2017 Apr;25(4):713-20.
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- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, Andridge R, Peng J, Malarkey WB, Belury MA. Daily stressors, past depression, and metabolic responses to high-fat meals: a novel path to obesity. Biological psychiatry. 2015 Apr 1;77(7):653-60.
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- Hanlon EC, Tasali E, Leproult R, Stuhr KL, Doncheck E, De Wit H, Hillard CJ, Van Cauter E. Sleep restriction enhances the daily rhythm of circulating levels of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol. Sleep. 2016 Mar 1;39(3):653-64.
- Jackson EM. Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 2013 May 1;17(3):14-9.
- Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ER, Madsen CG, Shelley SP, Sachs NA. Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Frontiers in psychology. 2020 Jan 14;10:2942.
- Thorpe, M. 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation#section10 [Accessed 30 July 2020].
- Harvard Health Publishing. Giving thanks can make you happier. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier [Accessed 30 July 2020].
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