top of page

Stress can be fattening

Like most things in life, moderation is key.

'MANAGING STRESS' is a familiar header for a multitude of articles, self help guides, brochures, retreats and mandatory health advice. Of course, this is all extremely relevant, but often quite difficult to implement in our busy and often, chaotic lives.

Ironically, the more highly developed our brains become, the more readily our bodies respond to psychological stress. Rarely, do we have to implement our ancient fight flight response to escape being eaten by a large mammal.

If we have the same stress response to traffic chaos, relationship and work issues, and extreme exercise, as we do to escaping a hungry lion, its no surprise that modern stress has become a serious health problem.


CORTISOL is the culprit.

Its important to 'stress' that cortisol is NOT a toxic substance. Just as cholesterol and insulin are needed in appropriate amounts to maintain healthy functioning in our cells, cortisol is important in the correct balance as well.

Not too little, and, not too much!

Cortisol levels fluctuate in a 24 hour circadian rhythm that affects the brain, the autonomic nervous system, the heart and vascular system.

Cortisol should be highest on waking, and lowest at bedtime at the end of the day.

These highly tuned rhythms can be disrupted by chronic physical or emotional stress, insufficient sleep, illness, shift work, travel, and many other reasons.

Whenever we're exposed to stress, whether its physical or emotional, or whether the stress is traffic, or tragedy, our body mounts a complex cascade of events to release cortisol as a means of coping with stress. The stress response is governed by the HPA axis. (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis)

Step 1 - In response to stress, the hypothalamus secretes CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone).

Step 2 - CRH travels to the pituitary gland and causes the release of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into the blood

Step 3 - ACTH signals the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol.

Its easy to see how chronic stress impacts our health, but how does it cause us to get fatter?

Chronically elevated cortisol levels disrupt multiple systems, including muscle and bone loss, fat gain, elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, suppression of the immune system, and alterations in memory function and mood.

The FKBP5 molecule within the Stress Axis helps with the production of cortisol in response to a stressful trigger and influences the emotional response to stress, as well as pain response, blood sugar levels, and of course, weight control.

There are other players in this game of checks and balances.

Within our fat cells we have an enzyme called HSD (11 beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-1) HSD converts inactive cortisone back to active cortisol, which then functions as a fat-storage signal within fat cells, predominantly in abdominal fat cells.

HSD activity is genetically determined and some people will lose weight under stressful conditions, and some people will gain weight under stress. Sound familiar?

Variations in genes such as NPY (Neuropeptide Y)may also contribute to a struggle with weight control under periods of stress and demanding conditions.

NPY decreases brain sensitivity to leptin, which then exerts an influence on obesity by creating new fat cells and fat storage.


We cannot escape stress, and life would be pretty dull without it.

Thankfully, there are techniques one can employ to help our 'stressed out' systems cope

* Keeping weight in a healthy range is key. Many of the biological processes are triggered by signals within fat cells.

* Regular exercise. Find something you enjoy, rather than following a trend. Regular, means sticking to it, not just as a January resolution or when you have to squeeze into that swimsuit.

* Yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi all have solid scientific backing.

* Massage, reflexology, acupuncture

* Relaxing music such as light classical. Weightless by Marconi Union has received lots of publicity after Mindlab International found a 65% reduction in anxiety in their participants.

* Get outdoors. Forest bathing, or grounding practices such as take off your shoes and walking on the grass or beach if possible.

* Cold water immersion.

* Vagal stimulation therapy

* Avoid processed sugars

* Reduce alcohol and avoid binge drinking.

* Reduce coffee and caffeinated drinks

* Mindfulness practices

* Increase omega 3 fatty acids and magnesium


bottom of page