Adrenal Stress and weight loss
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Whether it’s tension at work, a relationship in turmoil, caring for a sick family
member, or some other draining responsibility — we all know that when things get
tough, it can feel comforting to eat. Certainly over the long-term this quick-fix
will lead to extra pounds, but it’s not the only reason stress causes us to gain
There are actual physiological changes that happen in the body during times of stress
that can predispose us to pack on more pounds than when we aren’t stressed. These
changes are rooted in our adrenal glands, which govern the stress response
and many other fundamental bodily functions. When the adrenals are out of balance,
the body prepares for disaster the best way it knows how — by storing calories.
Yet if we restore the adrenals to their normal, healthy function, cravings disappear,
energy returns, and stubborn pounds fall away without too much effort.
As our lives become increasingly more demanding, let’s stop and take a closer look
at how stress affects your weight so you can finally get rid of those stubborn pounds
and get back to feeling like yourself.
How stress can make us gain weight
We usually think that “being stressed-out” is an emotional state, but the body understands
stress quite physically. And one of the ways it physically handles stress is by
being stingy about how it uses calories, storing them primarily in the form of fat
around the abdomen.
Why we’ve evolved this way has a lot to do with living in the wild. If you were
being chased by a bear, your adrenals shifted instantly into fight-or-flight mode,
releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the blood. The adrenaline and cortisol helped
to give us superhuman strength and quickly mobilized energy production from carbohydrates
and fats. Once the threat was gone, our instincts led us to refuel with calorie-dense
foods that are most readily stored as fat. Under cortisol’s influence, we are less
sensitive to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, and we eat more than we
The problem is that this sequence of events takes place whether the threat is real
or psychological. Since most of our modern-day stressors don’t require fleeing or
fighting, we generally don’t need all the extra calories our bodies make available.
What has also changed is that many of us exist now in a state of constant stress,
operating under elevated cortisol levels over long periods of time.
Belly fat: key symptoms of adrenal fatigue
Women with adrenal imbalance often develop a “spare tire” around the waist. This
happens for several reasons. Under normal circumstances, when we haven’t eaten for
a while, our blood sugar (glucose) drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenals
to release cortisol. This cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids, and fat to prevent
low blood sugar and keep your brain and body fueled with energy in the absence of
food. Cortisol maintains glucose levels in the blood, while insulin helps usher
glucose into our cells.
When we have long-term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood, and
the extra glucose that isn’t needed for energy gets stored in the form of fat —
primarily abdominal fat cells. Scientists have discovered that fat cells
have special stress-hormone receptors for cortisol, but that there also seem to
be more of these cortisol receptors on the fat cells in the abdomen than anywhere
else in the body!
And sadly, belly fat doesn’t just “sit there” doing nothing; it’s almost as if this
fat is itself an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response, spurring still
more abdominal fat to be deposited. So the cycle continues unless we take steps
to heal the adrenal imbalance.
Number one for your adrenal health: Eat right!
Some of you may have read my article on
how to eat for adrenal health; everything I discuss there applies here as
well. Here are a few key points.
Eat well, and regularly. If you want to convince your
body that it’s in no danger of starving to death, eat good food regularly. As I
explained above, cortisol is integral to maintaining blood sugar, so it makes sense
that keeping your blood sugar as level as possible lightens the load on the adrenal
glands. I recommend you eat three balanced meals and two balanced snacks per day,
spread out across the day to work with your natural circadian rhythm.
When you eat matters too. Cortisol has a natural cycle
that complements your circadian rhythm. Normally, cortisol is highest in the early
morning and declines gradually throughout the day to help you get ready for sleep.
Because eating always bumps up cortisol, it’s ideal to eat your largest meal early
in the day.
Keep healthy foods close at hand. Many women load up on
sweets and caffeine because they’re so easy to get. But this habit often leads to
an even greater drop in energy. When you need a boost, make sure you choose micronutrient-rich
foods that support your adrenals, like asparagus, avocado, cabbage, garlic, ginger,
and lean protein.
supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin mineral complex like the one we offer
in our Personal Program. Adrenal expert, Shawn Talbott, PhD, writes, “When it comes
to dietary supplementation for stress adaptation and cortisol control, the first
line of defense appears in the form of a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral supplement...”
Pacing yourself to promote healing
We live in a multitasking world where we’re expected to be on-line 24/7. From cell
phones and e-mail to TiVo and Facebook, we rarely take a break. Restoring adrenal
balance means taking time for yourself and slowing down. I know it seems counterintuitive:
we think being “on the go” all the time would help us to lose more weight. But if
you’re tired, wired, and overweight, it’s likely you will need to lower your stress
level and heal your adrenals to stop the vicious weight-gain cycle.
Did you know?
Light-headedness and salt cravings can be a sign of adrenal fatigue.
Take our quick quiz to see
if you have an adrenal imbalance and get our recommendations for your unique situation.
What do I mean by pacing yourself?
Sleep. Many patients tell me they get a second wind after
dinner, or that they’re “born night owls.” But when your circadian rhythm is turned
upside down, your cortisol cycle can follow, leaving you tired all day and wide
awake all night. You can avoid this pattern by eating less late in the day, ending
all screen time (TV, computer, cell phone) by 8 PM, and making a point of being
in bed, asleep, by 10 PM (striving for no fewer than 8 hours of sleep). If you are
struggling with sleep, our product Serinisol can help naturally reset your sleep
Exercise wisely. If you already exercise regularly and
feel good, keep it up. But for those who are feeling exhausted all the time, try
easing up on the intensity for a few months while your adrenals are healing. And
try to keep your heart rate under 90 beats per minute. If you don’t exercise, try
walking 15 minutes once or twice a day, especially after meals, outdoors if you
can. Exercise helps to reduce stress, as long as you are enjoying it, but this is
not a time to push yourself hard.
Play. For once in your adult life, make having fun a priority!
Many of us forget just how relaxing a few hours of fun or a good laugh can be. So
today I am writing out a virtual prescription for you: “Play!”
Breathe. Three to four deep breaths through your nose
can slow your heart rate and calm the whole body down. Find time throughout your
day to just breathe, especially when you feel stressed. Learn to recognize the signals
that you need to take a break, and get some fresh air, have a cup of herbal tea,
or simply put your feet up.
Let your body relax and release
In talking with women every day, I know how many responsibilities we have. It can
seem next to impossible to take a minute for ourselves! But I also know that weight
gain and lack of energy are serious concerns for women. For many of us, the stress
in our lives is intimately connected to our weight. Our bodies are wise — when stress
is the predominant state, your body will protect you by holding on to extra pounds.
You can coax your body away from “crisis mode” by healing your adrenals. Doing this
often means taking more time for you — including paying more attention to what you
eat, how you sleep, and how you live each day. You deserve every bit of it! And
once you replenish your energy and calm your stress response, you’ll be amazed and
delighted by how the weight comes off!
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Related to this article:
further reading on stress, adrenal imbalance, and weight gain
Last Modified Date: 06/18/2012
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP