Is Stress Making You Gain Weight?

September 17, 2016
Businesswoman under stress working in the office

Are you eating right and exercising – yet gaining weight?


STRESS could be to blame.

We can be eating a perfectly healthy diet – and hitting the gym regularly, but if our stress levels are out of control, then our metabolism is not working optimally.

A little stress is a normal part of life, but so many of us are stuck on the proverbial “hamster wheels” today – we are just going and going and going. High stress levels are a recipe for metabolism melt down and can lead to weight gain, and in some cases weight loss.

When we are under stress all of the time, our sympathetic nervous system is turned on – that means that our body is stuck in the fight or flight state – so that means that our heart rate, blood sugar, insulin, and blood pressure is elevated, while, our digestion, elimination, immune system, and reproductive system all go dormant – “ain’t nobody got time for that when we are running from a sabre tooth tiger!”

Cortisol’s role.

A steroid hormone produced in the adrenal cortex, cortisol is often referred to as “the stress hormone,” because during times of stress, the body pumps out more cortisol.  During a normal day, our cortsiol should be slightly elevated in the morning, to give us that “get up and go”, and it should be low at bedtime to help us settle down to sleep.  But sometimes, when we are under a lot of stress, and fueling up all day with caffeine and carbs, our cortisol levels can get out of whack.   Feeling “tired but wired” at bedtime is a classic symptom of a messed up cortisol rhythm.  Or needing 3 cups of coffee to get the engine running each morning is another. Cortisol issues can also show up as weight storage in the midsection – because of the chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin it causes. Chronically elevated cortisol can eventually lead to insulin resistance, which means the body is not able to use carbs to energy, and it is storing carbs as more fat.

Over time, chronic stress can mess with our sleep, raise cholesterol levels, contribute to dehydration and blood pressure issues, and eventually it can cause our other hormones to get out of balance too – causing things like estrogen dominance, hypothalamic amenorrhea, and adrenal fatigue.   Stress can be a trigger that sets serious diseases like heart disease and autoimmunity in motion too.

Genes loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.” *

What do hamsters do when they are not running like mad on those wheels?  They are resting and recovering.  We need to take a cue from them and get off those wheels occasionally. So although it might seem impossible to get off the hamster wheel – we have to remember – that we have a choice.  There are a number of things that we can choose to do to reduce stress levels.

Lifestyle changes for getting control of stress:

  • Get the blood sugar under control – I recommend always getting healthy fat, protein, and/or fiber every time you eat – I call it the “Rule of Three,”  which helps to keep the blood sugar stable.  Having blood sugar out of control can lead to mood swings, fatigue, and stress cravings.
  • Eat more whole foods – processed foods lead to nutrient deficiencies and often contain glutamates which are excitatory to the brain. I find that a lot of kids with anxiety eat too many foods with MSG and other chemicals in them (get rid of the Flamin’ Hot stuff).  Free glutamates in the brain leads to anxiety, depression, focus and attention issues, and potentially can even lead to autistic-type behaviors.
  • Heal the gut – when our digestion is out of balance, we are not able absorb nutrients or properly detox chemicals – this can make us feel out of balance, and lead to mood and brain issues.  Our gut is considered our “second brain” – and so when there is chronic stress and anxiety – often there are digestion woes too.
  • Get Your ZZZs – high levels of stress can really mess up our sleep – big time.  If you have that feeling at night where you are tired, but too wired to sleep – your stress levels are too high – and you could even have adrenal fatigue.  Time to do prioritize your sleep by turning off electronics 1 hour before bedtime (no exceptions), and do some calming things before bedtime – like taking an epsom salt bath (rich in magnesium), meditation, or having a cup of calming tea – like golden milk tea.  There are also a number of supplements that can support sleep.
  • Exercise Smarter – If our stress hormone cortisol is high, and we hit the treadmill or do aerobics for an hour – that could seriously backfire.  Long bouts of cardio raise our stress hormone cortisol – which only makes our metabolism more sluggish, and causes us to store more fat in our midsection. The good news?  We can do much shorter, more effective workouts to get the metabolism working again – interval training, weight training, yoga, and walking are all good for the metabolism.
  • Learning to say ‘no’ – Overcommiting ourselves can cause stress levels to go through the roof.  So be careful what you commit to. If you are a people pleaser – instead of saying no, you could start out by saying “not now.”  If your boss is trying to load up your work, and dumps another project on your desk with “stat’ written across the top…ask which other responsibilities can be put on hold to make this a priority?  In the end, learning to say no (or not now) is better for your employer, because you will have less sick days, less backaches, and more focus and energy.

Supplements to Reduce Stress:

Many people can benefit from supplements** that can help us to reduce our stress hormones and activate our calming neurotransmitters so we can get those stress hormones back in a normal rhythm:

  • Amino acids are precursors to neurotransmitters – which are important brain chemicals that can affect mood, attention, anxiety, focus, and even pain..  When neurotransmittersscreen-shot-2016-09-17-at-2-32-39-pm are out of balance, we feel out of balance too.  Taking the right amino acids can be very useful for reducing stress, anxiety and balancing mood. Two of my favorites that are very well tolerated are L-theanine and GABA.
    • L-Theanine is naturally occuring in green tea (camellia sinensis). It has been shown to reduce anxiety while increasing mental alertness and acuity.  L-Theanine can help to clear out free glutamates from the brain – which can help to calm.
    • GABA is another calming amino acid that helps to calm the brain waves and promote relaxation.  I find that these amino acids can be useful in the evenings – as an alternative for a glass of wine to relieve stress.
    • Pure Tranquility Liquid contains GABA, L-Theanine, and glysine which also has a calming effect – it is a liquid, so it allows for dosing flexibility and is good for those that can’t swallow pills.
  • Adaptogens are herbs that do what their name suggests – they help the body adapt to stress, they also support the immune system, metabolism and energy.
    • Ashwaganda, which is also known as Indian Ginsing, is a very beneficial adaptogen – it supports healthy joints, and tissue, immune system, energy production, and benefits the thyroid as well.
    • Rhodiola is another wonderful option, and studies have found that it may help to moderate stress, reduce fatigue, support short-term memory and concentration, improve neurotransmitter levels, and support energy metabolism.
  • Magnesium is known as the calming mineral. Most people are deficient in magnesium, and high stress levels tends to further deplete magnesium levels, so you might want toNatural Calm consider upping your magnesium during stressful times too.  Avoid the oxide form, as it is poorly absorbed and have more of a laxative effects.  Good sources of magnesium include citrate, malate, and glycinate.  One product that a lot of people like to use is Natural Calm, which is a powder that is stirred into a glass of water.  It can often support a healthy sleep.  It can lead to loose stools if you take too much.  So start with a half a dose, and gradually work your way up. If it gives you loose stools, back off your dose.  Read: Magnesium & The Brain, The Original “Chill Pill”
  • B vitamins are important for creating neurotransmitters, and are also excreted during times of stress. So that is why it is often recommended that people supplement with high quality B vitamins, like B Supreme to better handle stress.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids. Chronic stress leads to systemic inflammation – which increases the risk for heart disease, mood imbalances, and many diseases including cancer.  New studies are revealing that depression and other mood disorders are actually inflammation in the brain.  Important brain food – omega 3 fats such as those found in fatty fish are important for lowering systemic and chronic inflammation.  This is important for our brain, mood, heart health, reducing chronic pain, and preventing many diseases including cancer.  You want to go for a high quality brand that is rich in both DHA and EPA, like Nordic Naturals’ Pro Omega D.

Chronic stress can be the “switch” that turns on disease and slows down our metabolism. In order to have a healthy metabolism & a healthy life – we need to prioritize getting our stress levels under control. Chapter 7 of my book The Perfect Metabolism Plan is dedicated to strategies for lowering stress and improving sleep.





* this quote is attributed to a number of people including Dr. Mehmet Oz, Dr. Diane Schwarzbein, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.

** If you are currently taking prescription medications or under a doctor’s care, it is recommended that you consult your doctor before taking any supplements or herbs.

Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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