Emotions play a significant role in weight management. Most people think of the psychological contributor - emotional eating – when it comes emotions and weight. There are also hormones involved in emotions, especially stress, that promote weight gain in physiological ways.
Cortisol is one of two primary hormones released during times of stress. When we are faced with a stressful event, cortisol release triggers several physiological events that aid in our body’s ability to ‘fight or flight.’ In an isolated stressful event, cortisol levels return to normal after the event subsides. But when an individual is bombarded with constant stressors, cortisol levels stay elevated. Chronically elevated cortisol contributes to a variety of health issues, including difficulty with weight management.
How do chronically elevated levels or cortisol contribute to weight gain?
- Cortisol triggers the release of glucose (sugar), the body’s primary source of energy. Cortisol also blocks the action of insulin in order to prevent glucose from being stored. A chronic state of both events causes glucose to be trapped in the bloodstream, leaving the body feeling energy deprived. What is the body’s response when energy deprived? Stimulate hunger for more energy. Increased hunger = excess calories.
- Not only do hunger levels increase under chronic stress, but specifically triggered are cravings for simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are turned into glucose faster than other foods, making them the best choice for a source of quick energy for the body. Simple carbohydrates also tend to be high in calories, further contributing to weight gain.
- Cortisol has also been shown to promote fat storage for later use. When high levels of cortisol are present, the body is more prone to store a greater percentage of calories as fat than it would in a normal state, specifically increasing visceral fat. Visceral fat is found internally, between abdominal organs, and is correlated with and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Visceral fat itself is also known to contribute to cortisol production, thus creating a cycle of stress hormone production and fat storage.
How can we minimize the effect that stress has on weight?
- Make a list of ways to help reduce stressful feelings that do not involve food. Short walks outside, stress balls, journaling or reading a book are just a few examples. Keep your list handy and reach for it before you reach for food.
- Exercise! People who engage in physical activity on a regular basis have been shown to have lover levels of circulating cortisol. A lower baseline cortisol level helps lower the amount of cortisol released when a stressor presents itself.
- If managing your emotional health is too difficult to do on your own, seek help. Professional therapists and counselors are a great resource to help manage emotions.