Adrenal Stress And Weight Gain – Are They Related?

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

  • The stress response and how it causes us gain weight
  • Belly fat, one of the first symptoms of adrenal dysfunction
  • Changing your diet, the key ingredient for adrenal balance
  • Balancing your life, where to start?

The most important question so many of my patients ask me is “Why am I gaining weight?  I’ve done nothing different.”

Times have changed greatly and our lives are busier than ever. Multi-tasking is now the norm. Between the stressors of our jobs, relationship turmoil, caring for aging or sick parents, and many other responsibilities, we are all very aware that life challenges are more difficult than ever before. Sometimes unconscious snacking can occur as it’s a quick fix solution to increased stress, and it does temporarily soothe the tension.  BUT it is by far not the only reason for our weight gain as stress and the physical effects can be such a big factor.

Many physiological changes happen with high levels of stress and all of these predispose us to gain unwanted pounds – many times without changing our diets or eating habits!

The origin of these dramatic changes stem from hormones produced by our adrenal glands.  These amazing glands govern many very important bodily functions and are crucial to helping us deal with the stress response. When the adrenals are completely out of balance, the fight-or-flight response occurs and the body prepares for the worst case scenario by storing calories for a rainy day. But the good news is that when supported properly and healthy function is regained – energy comes back, stamina returns, cravings for carbs and sugar disappear, and best of all – the unwanted pounds just fall off with little effort.

Our adrenal products help thousands of women.  Learn more about all of the products included in our True Health Systems for Adrenal Health.

So how does stress really affect our weight? Let’s take a more in depth look at how this happens and what you need to do about it so you can feel more like your old self.

How stress really can makes us gain unwanted weight

As a culture, we most often think that “being stressed” is only related to our emotions, yet few of us understand the dramatic effect it has on us physically. The most frustrating way that it affects us is by storing any calories that are not absolutely necessary, and most often the storage occurs in the abdominal area and thighs.

Our ancient evolution has everything to do with why this happens this way. Many years ago,  if you were being chased by a tiger, your adrenals quickly went into the fight-or-flight mode, releasing it’s stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. Those superhuman powers we have heard about in cases of stress come from adrenalin and cortisol, and their ability to quickly mobilize carbohydrates and fats to give us instant energy. When the threat is over, our body relaxes but our instincts cause us to refuel with carbohydrate dense foods that are most often stored as fat. When high levels of cortisol are streaming through the blood, we are much less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that gives the signal to the brain that we are full.  Therefore, there may be a tendency to eat more than usual, as it feels like a need for survival.

The real problem here is that these physiological responses take place whether the threat is real or psychological. Because most of the everyday stressors we experience on a day to daybasis don’t require our fight or flee response we really don’t need the extra calories our body is so efficiently storing. The other significant change is that many of us are living in a constant state of stress which causes high levels of cortisol to be released on a regular basis for extended periods of time.

Belly fat:  One of the key symptoms of adrenal fatigue

Women with adrenal dysfunction most often develop additional body fat around their middle, known for many as a “spare tire”.  There are several reasons for this. In normal circumstances, if we have gone for long periods of time without food, our blood sugar drops and our brain sends chemical messages to the adrenals to release cortisol.  This cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids and fat to prevent the blood sugar from going too low and keeps the body and brain fueled with the energy it requires when food is not available.  Cortisol’s job is to maintain stable levels of glucose in the blood while insulin assists in the ushering of glucose into the cells.

After years and or months of long term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood and the extra glucose gets stored as that unwanted fat, mostly in the abdomen and thighs. Research is now showing us that fat cells have special receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, but most importantly these receptors are much more prevalent on the fat cells in the abdominal area.

Another extremely frustrating issue, is that this fat does not just sit there. Recent research shows that it actually works like an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response which in turn creates even more abdominal fat and on and on it goes.  The great news – and it is great news – is that you can stop the cycle by taking steps to heal that adrenal imbalance.

What can you do to change the pattern: Eat right!!

Many of you may have read my article on how to eat for adrenal health, and everything I talk about in my book, Is It Me or My Adrenals? and in this article applies here too.  So what can you do?!

Regular meals and two snacks per day.  To convince your body that it is not starving, and most importantly, that it is not in danger, you must eat on a regular basis. Keeping your blood sugar stable prevents large amounts of cortisol from being released and in the long run, decreases the burden on the adrenal glands. I recommend that you eat three balanced meals and two snacks per day, and these need to be spread out across the day to work with your bodies’ natural circadian rhythm. See our diagram of the cortisol cycle for the effects of meals and snacks on cortisol.

Eating at the right times does matter.  Cortisol has a natural rhythm, which is highest in the morning, and decreases gradually as the day progresses, and is lowest at night so restful sleep can occur. Eating tends to increase cortisol, so eating the largest meal earlier in the day is the best option for optimal well-being.

Having your favorite foods readily available. So many of my patients use sugar, sugary snacks and caffeine because these give them quick energy and are fast and easy. But trust me, eating this way often leads to an even bigger drop in energy as the blood sugar plummets after the initial spike. If energy is needed, add protein and foods high in nutrients that support the adrenals, foods such as blueberries, broccoli, ginger, avocado and of course lean proteins.

Tip:  Something extremely important to consider is adding a pharmaceutical grade multivitamin/mineral complex and adaptogenic herbs like the ones we offer in our True Health Systems. 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…”

Balancing your life to promote the healing of the adrenals

As I talked about in the beginning of this article, we live in a world that is non-stop.  We as women multi-task and are often proud of all that we can accomplish in a day.  We have cell phones, and most of us have smart phones, ipads, computers, do texting and Facebook, and we seldom take a peaceful break.  Restoring the adrenals back to balance means having balance in your life which requires that you take time for yourself and find ways to slow down regularly. Many of us think that being on the go all the time will help with weight loss, but the opposite is actually true. 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.

Important things for you to Know!

Craving salt and being light headed, especially when getting up quickly, can be signs of adrenal dysfunction.

You can take our quick quiz to see if you have an adrenal dysfunction and get our unique recommendations for your unique situation. Learn more.

How do I start to balance my life?

Sleep. So many of my patients tell me they feel more energized at night especially after dinner or that night time is their best time. I also hear from them that they just can’t get to sleep or falling asleep is easy, but they always wake up and can’t get back to sleep.  If your circadian rhythm is backwards and your cortisol is low in the morning and high at night you will feel tired in the morning and wired and awake at night. You can begin to change this pattern by eating your largest meal earlier in the day, and having a light dinner, stopping any screen time including the computers at 7pm and making an effort to be in bed by 10 pm, striving for at least 7-8 hours of sleep. If you are struggling with sleep, our Women to Women’s Sleep Support Formula can help naturally reset your sleep cycle.

Be mindful of exercise. If you are already in a pattern of getting regular exercise, and feel good after the exercise, then continue your regime.  IF, on the other hand, you feel wiped out after exercise, try decreasing the exercise and try not to get your heart rate over 90 until the adrenal dysfunction is resolved. If you are just starting to exercise, try taking a walk (preferably outside) for 15 minutes to start and then increasing to 15 minutes two times per day. Exercise has been known to decrease stress and help endorphins, which help you feel better.

 Play. As adults we seldom make time to play. Most of us have forgotten that fun and play are essential parts of life.  Making some time in your life now for more fun is essential for your well-being. Many times in my practice I will actually write out a prescription for my patients to have fun and PLAY more.  So now I want you to do just that!

 Breathe. Breathing is crucial for slowing your heart rate and calming your entire body. Just three or four deep breaths can do wonders to accomplish just that. So find time to take those deep breaths throughout the day – especially when you are stressed.  The good news is that it takes up very little of your time and you need to breathe anyway. Try to recognize those times when your body needs a break.  Get some fresh air, take a few deep breaths, have a relaxing cup of tea and relax – even if this is for a short period of time.  It will do wonders.

Allow your body to release the stress and relax

In seeing patients every day, I see over and over again the enormous sense of responsibility many women have today.  For so many it can seem virtually impossible to take just a minute for themselves. But I know that unwanted weight gain and lack of get up and go are significant worries for many women.  For so many of us our stress in intimately connected to our weight and lack of energy.  Our amazing bodies are very wise and want to protect us with the fight-or-flight response, and hold onto those extra pounds.

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