by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
We go through periods of time in our lives when the demands are greater and the stress load is heavier. Regardless of the reasons – illness, relationship difficulties, work struggles, caring for an aging parent or ailing child – there can be a physical impact. We may turn to food for comfort, or we may not nourish ourselves adequately. During times of stress there are actual physiological changes that happen in our bodies, one of which is weight gain. It may not happen overnight, but if we do not pay attention to our body’s needs, over time we may notice we are putting on the pounds.
Our adrenal glands govern our stress response, by secreting hormones relative to our stress levels. They actually help control many hormonal cycles and functions in our body. When the adrenal glands are overworked, the body prepares for disaster, by storing fat and calories. We crave foods, we lose precious energy, and we gain weight. So how can we keep the heavier stress load from equaling heavier bodies?
How stress becomes physical
For millions of years, humans were forced to protect themselves from environmental factors. From the earliest days of dinosaurs and cavemen, nature has proven its ability to put fear in human beings. Life and death circumstances have evolved around the ability to understand danger, and seek protection and survival. If you were being chased by a predator, your adrenal glands initiated a “fight or flight” response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the body. These hormones provided extra physical energy and strength from stored carbohydrates and fats.
While most of our stressors are not the same a our earliest ancestors, the body’s natural course of evolution has maintained this original fight-or-flight stress response. But whether we are being physically threatened or not, with any increased stress our body looks to its stored fuel, and then replenishes it when used. Also, with increased levels of cortisol, our body also does not respond as well to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, so we eat more.
Modern-day stress may be more psychological than physiological, but it is also more constant. Many of us face chronic stress as a way of life, which means we have consistently elevated levels of cortisol. Now the body thinks it continually needs extra fuel, and typically stores that as fat around the abdomen, or as it’s commonly referred to, the old “spare tire.”
Belly fat: a common sign of adrenal fatigue
Adrenal imbalance causes a number of issues, including an expanded waistline. The science behind it is quite interesting. Normally when we feel begin to feel hungry, our blood sugar drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol activates glucose, fats, and amino acids to keep our body fueled with energy until we eat. Cortisol maintains blood sugar levels, and insulin helps our cells absorb glucose. When we have longterm stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood, and the extra glucose is stored as fat–mostly in the abdomen.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Scientists have discovered that fat cells actually have special receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies! In addition, scientists have shown that belly fat is actually an active tissue, acting as an endocrine organ that responds to the stress response by actually welcoming more fat to be deposited! This is an ongoing cycle until we take steps to correct this adrenal imbalance. How do we do that?