women stressed working

How Stress Can Derail Your Weight Loss efforts

by Evelyn Valdez

There is no such thing as a linear fitness journey. Embarking on a fitness journey means going through the motions - getting substantial results to minimal results, and eventually hitting a workout plateau. Typically when progress slows down many people look to change up their training routine or adjust their diet. Although making those changes can help you break through a plateau, there might be another reason as to why your progress has slowed down... How much you stress. 

The more you stress, whether it be about your fitness or other things in your life, the higher the chance of engaging in unhealthy behaviors like overeating. Not only that, but it also elevates your cortisol levels which can have disastrous effects on the body. Let's take a step back... What even is cortisol? It's a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, it's actually commonly referred to as the stress hormone due to the role it plays in your body's stress response.  This hormone has a number of other important functions that are important for your health. One of the important functions has to do with weight management. So whether you want to build muscle or lose weight, high cortisol levels can negatively impact your goals!

With that being said, having balanced cortisol levels is key for bettering your health and to ensure your workouts aren't going down the drain! And we're here to help you understand how this hormone functions that way you can determine whether stress is impacting your fitness and if it is, we'll give you tips on how to combat high cortisol levels!

What are the effects of cortisol on the body?

As mentioned earlier, the hormone cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands (near the kidneys) in a diurnal cycle, meaning your cortisol levels are naturally their highest in the morning and lowest late at night. Most of the cells in our bodies have cortisol receptors that use it for three main functions - blood sugar regulation, inflammation reduction, and metabolism regulation. Balanced cortisol levels are beneficial because it helps stimulate fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy, maintain blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and even helps temporarily boost the immune system! But what cortisol is best known for is producing the "fight or flight" response. This is a reaction that enables people to react to what could be life-threatening situations, or oftentimes, stressful situations. High-stress levels trigger an increase of cortisol and adrenaline to be released which in turn increases heart rate and energy levels to help us deal with the situation at hand. Modern-day stressors aren't all obvious, it can be giving a presentation at work, financial concerns, long commutes, constant email, and texts, etc. And unfortunately, some of these stressors are out of our control and can compromise our health...

So, what happens when its levels are too high? Well, it's not so much about how high they are because small rises in response to stress are normal and won't cause negative side effects. What does is when cortisol levels remain chronically elevated. Meaning if you stress easily or constantly feel stressed then chances are that your cortisol levels remain at a higher level. Here are a few side effects of chronic stress to help you identify whether it’s affecting you or not:

  • Fatigue
  • High blood pressure
  • Mood changes, specifically feeling suddenly anxious or depressed
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Flushed face
  • Thinning skin
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Insulin resistance

But at the very top of this list, and the main reason we're giving you this information is that it can cause weight gain and even affect your muscle gains!

How stress can derail your muscle building and weight loss efforts

Let's start with the basics, high levels of stress can trigger cravings for sugar and high-fat foods. The reason this happens is due to the "fight or flight" response that happens when dealing with a stressful situation. As mentioned earlier, our body's energy levels increase in order to deal with the situation, but the fuel that your body needs is sugar thus kicking in those sweet, carb-loaded cravings. [1] This can lead to something known as emotional eating, like when you're really sad and grab that tub of ice cream to feel better! It can be hard to read emotions, especially stress, so when your cravings hit you might not realize that it's due to stress. Although indulging in your favorite comfort foods is not bad in moderation, constantly reaching for those foods when stressed can make it difficult to maintain healthy eating habits that you worked hard to build.

That is one way cortisol can cause you to gain weight, and as we know that weight gain means an increase in body fat... Well, cortisol affects where that fat is distributed. Unfortunately, cortisol increases visceral fat, meaning the fat you gained is stored in the belly. Although there may be other factors at play, it's not a stretch to blame stress for that stubborn pouch of belly fat that you can't seem to lose. Previous studies examined cortisol response in overweight women, but this study conducted at Yale's psychology department studied the effects of stress on non-overweight women and overweight women who stored fat either centrally at the waist or the hips. The study found that non-overweight lean women with a high waist to hip ratio were more vulnerable to stress and continued to secrete more cortisol in response to stressful challenges. This study, along with other animal studies, found that there is a link between having higher cortisol levels and excess abdominal fat. [2] Not only that but lead investigator Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., said that the women with more abdominal fat had more negative moods and higher levels of life stress. [3] This just shows that those that are exposed to a lot of stress enhanced their cortisol reactivity which in turn can lead to accumulating belly fat. The real problem with excess abdominal fat is that it's linked to several health problems, including a greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. So overcoming stress to maintain balanced cortisol levels is more about your health and wellness than about having a flat stomach.

But, what if you are able to combat those sweet cravings during stressful times? Even if you don't eat foods high in carbs, fat, and sugar, cortisol can slow down your metabolism which will make your weight loss efforts difficult even if you're eating relatively clean and exercising regularly. Researchers from Ohio State University wanted to see whether there is a connection between high-stress levels and metabolism. They did this by interviewing women about the stress they had experienced the previous day before feeding them a high-fat, high-calorie meal and then measuring those women's metabolic rates to examine their blood sugar, cholesterol, insulin levels, and cortisol levels. The results - on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned fewer calories than the women who were not stressed. They only burned 104 fewer calories, but this could result in gaining 11 pounds in one year! [4]

Not only can cortisol impact your weight, but it can also impact how you build muscle! Elevated levels of cortisol lead to lesser production of testosterone which can lead to a decrease in muscle mass. And less testosterone to build muscle leads to your body burning fewer calories. 

As you can see, constant stress can lead to a constant stream of cortisol being released which can not only seriously affect your overall health and well-being, but also any fitness goals you may have!

Ways to reduce cortisol levels to fight weight gain

You're probably wondering now how to lower cortisol levels and lose weight or attain any goals you want to reach... While stress may be inevitable, we do have the choices to make on how to deal with that stress and what we feed our bodies. Your food intake can affect whether your cortisol levels skyrocket or not. With that being said, let's take a look at strategies that can help you manage your cortisol and stress:

  • Eat a balanced diet filled with protein, good fats, and carbs: Keeping blood sugar levels balanced will in turn help keep your cortisol levels in check. Doing that is as simple as eating a healthy balanced diet filled with good carbs (complex carbs, green veggies), good fats (avocados, nuts, etc), and plenty of protein! Quality proteins - meat, eggs, fish - contain amino acids that are used to make neurotransmitters that affect how we feel, like serotonin and dopamine. These foods will help nourish your body and they even make you feel better mentally, on top of keeping your blood sugar levels balanced.
  • Eat healthier versions of your comfort foods: It's easy to say, "eat a healthy diet", but actually doing it can be difficult, especially if dealing with chronic stress. Luckily, you don't need tons of fats or carbs to make you feel better! Swap out your usual favorite comfort foods for other delicious and healthier options. Like air-popped popcorn, fruits, low-sugar ice cream, baked sweet potato fries, etc. Keep your favorite healthy comfort foods stocked at home that way it's easier for you to grab a healthier option during stressful times. Just remember to not overdo it, you can still gain weight from healthy foods if they are over consumed, so be mindful about how much you eat! (Psst, here's more tips on how to deal with unhealthy cravings)
  • Get plenty of good rest: There are plenty of good reasons to get an adequate amount of good sleep, but one of those reasons has to do with cortisol. Not getting enough rest can impact cortisol and cause the levels to rise, so try your best to sleep 7-9 hours a night. If you have trouble sleeping at night consider trying a magnesium glycinate supplement. Magnesium is known to help the body relax, reduce anxiety, and even control blood sugar!
  • Incorporate stress management techniques into your daily life: Think of something that you enjoy doing and that helps you feel relaxed and peaceful. Whatever it is, incorporate it into your daily life! A few examples of stress-relieving activities are yoga, reading a good book, drawing, meditating, or even going on a walk to get fresh air. Whenever you feel overwhelmed and stressed take a few moments to do something you love to help reduce your stress and cortisol!
  • Make exercise a priority: Exercise is good for your overall health, but it's also a great stress reliever! It could be as simple as going on a walk, bike ride, or run, or hitting the weights. Find what exercise relaxes you best and incorporate it whenever you're too stressed or overwhelmed to follow your usual high-intensity training routine. If you already strength train or do any high-intensity exercise, consider doing other forms of exercise during high-stress times like flexibility training, yoga, hiking, etc. This will help you exercise even when you're too stressed to hit the weights. Plus, these other forms of training are less stressful on your body so they won't increase your cortisol levels as much as lifting weights would.
Bottom line, chronic stress has been known to impact cortisol which in turn can lead to a number of health problems that you don't want! It can even derail all the effort and work you're putting in at the gym! And although stressful situations are out of our control, practicing stress-relieving techniques, eating a healthy nutrient-dense diet, getting enough rest, and exercising regularly can all help you manage stress from your everyday life.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published