If you've ever wondered if stress makes you fat, the answer is yes. Too much chronic cortisol not only promotes weight gain, but increases appetite for salty and sugar foods. Cortisol also slows metabolism and thyroid function making your body burn calories less effectively.
Many of my clients, women over 35, struggle with weight gain during peri-menopause and menopause. At least 50% of them are clients who eat healthy, nutrient dense foods and are exercisers. Many of them are noticed what once worked to lose weight is no longer working.
The common theme among ALL my clients is they are living very stressful lives. Many of them are type A personalities who are people pleasers. They are go, go, go. Not recovering from exercise, not resting and prioritizing sleep and self-care.
Other clients are living busy, stressful lives but are not exercising and are over consuming high calorie foods. These are the two camps my clients are typically in and from the body's perspective, they are both stressful.
Not exercising is stressful and over training is stressful. Chronically dieting is stressing and eating too many high calorie foods is stressful.
Their busy lifestyle, exercise routine, lack of recovery and people pleasing is causing them to notice weight gain during this phase of life. As well as chronically under eating. Yes, you read that right.
Many of my clients have been chronically dieting or under eating. This puts stress on the metabolism making it more resistant to weight loss. It also means the metabolism adapts faster to each diet you do.
Women notice the weight gain primarily in their mid-section or belly. This type of weight gain is from hormonal imbalances, primarily cortisol. So yes, too much stress makes you fat and causes weight gain.
During peri-menopause and menopause, the body already has increased cortisol due to the changes hormones. This normal. But coupled with an imbalanced lifestyle, eating too little, over training and not recovering properly, this becomes the perfect recipe for females to gain weight.
It's not uncommon for my advanced clients to even tell me they track their calories or macros and are still not seeing results. This is because the body utilizes calories (burns calories) less effectively when cortisol imbalances are going on.
I use the DUTCH test with my clients so we can holistically see what is going on with stress hormones and reproductive hormones. These hormones all play together with thyroid and metabolism and impact your weight.
In this podcast episode, I go into the details of how stress makes you fat, how it affect hormones, how it impacts weight loss and what to do about it.
In this Dish on Ditching Diets Podcast Episode, You Will Hear:
- How stress, cortisol hormones makes you fat
- The hormones cortisol impacts and how it impacts your weight
- Why regulating your nervous system is key to weight management
- What most women are doing wrong when it comes to lifestyle, exercise, nutrition and stress and how it's working against their weight loss goals
Listen To The Full Podcast
More Episodes From This Stress Podcast
- Exercising Too Much Is Making You Fat
- How Eating Too Little Makes You Fat
- Losing The Belly Fat: Deb's Transformation
- How To Eat For A Leaner Midsection
How Stress Makes You Fat Podcast Transcript
Hello friends – today we’re talking about how stress makes you fat and we’re going to specifically talk about the hormone cortisol. This is a big hormone for perimenopausal and menopausal women in particular and can often interfere with losing fat.
Cortisol is just as important in my mind as calories. We always talk about how a calorie deficit is required for weight loss. Our bodies use calories from food as energy and there are certain things that cause our bodies to burn calories less effectively. Cortisol being one of them.
When you have imbalances like with cortisol, it’s no longer just about calories. Calorie deficit is the key to weight loss but if you have an imbalance with cortisol going on then you may not be burning calories as effectively and cortisol imbalances do affect the thyroid and liver detox function.
Two things critical to weight loss and this is why I do DUTCH hormone testing with some of my clients, but before we get into more details, I want to ask you to do a big favor.
If you would log into iTunes, Spotify or the podcast app you’re listening to this on your device, please take a moment to give this podcast a 5-star review and if you could leave a written review that would be helpful too.
This helps more women get the help they need! I get messages from women every day telling me how much they love the podcast and how much it’s helped them.
I also see a lot of people are listening to this podcast so if you would take a moment to give it a 5-star review that would be so helpful for other women who have been struggling. Okay, so let’s dive in and talk about how stress impacts weight loss.
Today we’re talking about how stress makes you fat. How stress prevents weight loss and can cause you to gain weight especially during perimenopause and menopause.
Particularly, we are going to talk about cortisol connection and the effect cortisol has on the body, on weight loss, how it affects you and how you can affect it.
And before I get into the meat and potatoes of everything, I want to remind you that before you work on losing weight, you have to work on your mindset.
If your mind is in the right place, your body will follow. What a lot of women do is they try to change their body with going on a diet without changing their mindset first.
And if you’re listening to me, you may be a woman who’s been dieting her whole life or you may be a woman who’s been training a lot and eating very low calories and you’ve hit perimenopause or menopause and your body’s going – nah, ah.
I don’t think we’re having any more of this. Can’t lose weight, can’t do anything like you used to do and you are frustrated. And I think it’s a perfect time for you to change the way you think.
Change your mindset. Because when you change how you think about your approach to losing weight and keeping it off for good. Remember, the goal is to keep it off not just to lose weight. But when you change your mindset, the changes in the body will follow.
Now that we’ve talked about that, I want to explain to you how stress makes you fat. I did an episode awhile back, episode 18 on how to eat for a leaner body. I talk about how cortisol can be a helpful hormone or a not so helpful hormone in that episode.
Because a lot of menopausal ladies will complain to me about the belly weight and belly weight is a symptom of imbalances with cortisol. You can have cortisol imbalances without having belly fat too by the way. So, in episode 18 I talk about this and that would be a good episode for you to listen to after this one.
Episode 62 on overtraining and how exercising too much creates this stress response in the body is another great episode that goes with what we’re discussing today along with episode 54 on how eating too little makes you fat. I’ll go over a few of these scenarios today, but those 3 episodes I recommend you listen to after this one to help you understand this.
So I want to start off by telling you that stress can make you fat, but I don’t want you to STRESS OUT about the fact that stress can make you fat. I’m going to assume if you’re listening to this right now, you’re under stress.
We are in a society that is go, go, go, do, do, do, busy, busy, busy, connected all day long to our devices and wondering why we never feel good. I think back to when I was growing up in the 80’s how much simpler our lives felt then.
We didn’t have phones where anyone could get a hold of us at any hour of the day and we didn’t have to be constantly connected to work and the comparison trap of social media.
We were just present, and we lived our lives. In fact, I notice today whenever I ask someone how they’re doing. They always “busy.” “I’m so busy.” They say it like it’s a badge of honor.
“I’m soooo busy.” I think it’s the most acceptable and almost expected thing in our society to be busy and that if you’re not busy there is something wrong with you. Unfortunately, I think this busyness is very stressful.
Remember the word stress is a feeling. I feel stressed. That’s a feeling. And feelings are things we create within ourselves with how we perceive things in our lives. For example, let’s say it’s raining outside.
I think to myself ewww, it’s nasty outside. I’m not going for a walk today and then I feel kind of tired. So, did I not go for a walk because it was raining or did I not go for a walk because of what I was thinking about the rain?
I hope you know the answer, but if you don’t the reason you don’t go for a walk and feel tired is because of what you think about a rainy day. Think about this as I’m talking about stress because stress comes from how you think.
If you’re feeling really stressed, it’s not the situation making you stressed. It’s the way you are thinking about the situation that is creating that stressful feeling inside you.
Now if you have a lot of stressful feelings, you are the one causing those stressful feelings. It doesn’t come from an outside source; it comes from you. That’s good news because if you’re the one causing it, you’re the one who can change it.
Let’s say for the last 30 years, you’ve been stressing yourself out. When you feel that stress what happens in your body, the hormone in your body cortisol increases in order to help you with that stress response.
The way cortisol is supposed to work in the body is – let’s say you’re back in the 1800’s hunting and you come across a lion. Immediately what will happen to you, is your cortisol will go up and your body goes into what’s called a fight or flight response.
That is the sympathetic nervous system being activated. That fight or flight response with cortisol is what allows you to run like crazy away from the lion. And after that happens, you run away and you’re now safe, the body goes back to normal or homeostasis and cortisol goes back to normal. That’s a normal cortisol stress response.
But if you think about our lives now today in 2022, basically we are under that cortisol stress response 24/7. We think something about a situation in our lives, we feel stressed, we do something, but the stress just continues. It never goes away.
And if we continue thinking things that make us feel stressed, we are going to keep our cortisol high for longer periods of time. And this becomes an even bigger problem during perimenopause and menopause because as hormones are changing it begins to influence them and influence insulin.
So, the problem that most women have in today’s world is that they are chronically stressing their bodies out with how they react to things in their day to day lives and now they’re living in a state of chronic high cortisol and the sympathetic nervous system is activated all the time.
The body wants homeostasis 80% or more of the time. You have the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is what the body desires 80% or more of the time.
We are not living our lives this way and like I said, most of us are stressing ourselves out with how we perceive situations happening in our lives.
This shows up in behaviors like perfectionism, people pleasing, being an overachiever, type A personality, wanting to be perfect all the time, wanting to do it all, never asking for help, being unhappy in our lives, feeling unfilled, wanting your house to be perfect, your family, your body, your diet, your exercise, etc.
And what’s fascinating is that these are always common behaviors I see among my clients and it’s getting in their way of fueling their bodies and losing weight.
The symptoms of chronically high cortisol are increased hunger and appetite, cravings, increased body fat, increased belly fat, weight loss resistance, difficulty sleeping and calming nervous energy, increased depression, mood swings, insomnia, frequently waking up between 2-4am, hot flashes and night sweats. That’s cortisol!
Now when you have chronically high cortisol what can happen and it happens for many women, is the body gets to a point where instead of pumping out so much cortisol from the adrenals, it begins to shift to low cortisol.
Low cortisol or flatlined cortisol is just as problematic as high cortisol. Low cortisol has been referred to as adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue is not a real medical diagnosis, but you may have heard that term before.
Essentially what happens is that the body can’t keep up with the chronic stress, so then you swing into a low cortisol or flatlined cortisol pattern because your body is just like I’m done! You’re stressing me out too much!
And during perimenopause and menopause, your body is going through a hormonal transition. During this time, cortisol can increase just from going through this hormonal transition. So, you have to be really mindful of what’s going on in your body.
I more often see this low cortisol pattern on DUTCH tests with clients than I do high cortisol and that always is an indication to me that the body has been under too much stress.
Now guess what scientific studies show about one of our biggest stressors. Dieting and the stress of dieting our causing increased cortisol levels due to either trying to restrict our food too much (eat too low calories) or trying to avoid things we think we shouldn’t have.
Researchers have found that this increases our cortisol levels which make us hungrier and increase our cravings which cause us to overeat and then we stress out about our weight and our overeating and it’s an endless cycle.
Women who produced the most amount of cortisol were not only hungrier, but also had an increase in moods in response to the stressors which are significantly correlated to higher food consumption. Increased stress, increased cortisol or very low cortisol makes us hungrier and more tired, and when you think about perimenopausal and menopausal women these are symptoms they talk about all the time.
So, this is why you many women struggle losing weight. And the truth is when there is a cortisol problem, this is no longer a calorie problem. It’s no longer about a calorie deficit. The cortisol imbalance will not allow you to lose weight no matter how few calories you eat.
Women will come to me and tell me they’re hardly eating anything and not losing weight. That’s not a good thing because all that is doing is sending more stress signals to the body. This is why we don’t stay in calorie deficits long.
This is why we don’t eat too few calories, but the fascinating thing is so many of my clients are in this camp. They have done so many diets that have taught them to eat very little food or be scared of eating food and now they’ve trained themselves to not be very hungry and to eat very little. All that does is increase stress. Your body when it perceives too much stress and danger, does not lose weight.
The body must be restored to homeostasis and that means we first need to deal with the cortisol in your body and how you are dealing with stress in your life. That must be dealt with BEFORE losing weight.
This also happens with exercise just like I talked about in episode 62. If you are overtraining, you are stressing your body. Every time you exercise specifically doing too much cardio and high intensity training, you are activating the sympathetic nervous system, that stress response.
Too much high intensity and too much frequency of cardio training in females stresses the body. The body wants balance. It doesn’t want you to do cardio hours a day. I often have clients who have trained a certain way and then when they are in perimenopause or menopause, they will hit a wall and they can no longer do that. Right, because the body is too stressed.
The other part of increased cortisol I didn’t mention yet is how it impacts the thyroid. Stress increases production of cortisol and cortisol inhibits the secretion of TSH – the thyroid stimulating hormone which lowers thyroid hormone problem.
Cortisol also inhibits the conversion of T4 inactive thyroid hormone to T3 active thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone acts to regulate metabolism by increasing basal metabolic rate, temperature, and heart rate/cardiac output. This, in part, explains why chronic stress can easily lead to hypothyroidism, because cortisol is literally turning off your metabolism.
So, hopefully you see how the more you are chronically stressed whether it’s by chronically dieting, overtraining and doing too much exercise or stressing yourself out by how you react to everything in life how this plays a huge role in weight loss.
Stressing yourself out on a regular basis is like seeing a lion 24/7 and ladies, I don’t think there’s any lions running around here. But I think there’s a lot of things we think can’t handle so you’re constantly thinking negative thoughts that create your own stress and stress out your body.
You may have come to hear this podcast believing that when your situation changes, you’ll feel less stressed. But as you’ve learned today, your stress doesn’t come from your situation.
Your stress comes from what you think about your situation. Your situation is not under your control. What happens in life is not under your control. How you think about it IS under your control.
Now last thing. Don’t ever go on another diet again and deprive yourself by eating too few calories. That creates more stress in your body. So even though you’re depriving yourself or restricting yourself of food, you are increasing your cortisol so much that now you can’t lose weight.
Be careful and mindful of how you fuel your body. Even when the goal is to lose weight, we should never be hungry. That is something I hear from women who do consults with me. They say they can’t go on another diet because they can’t starve themselves anymore.
Or they tell me they just don’t have willpower to eat so little food. If that, is you, I want you to hear me clearly. You are not supposed to be starving or eating so little food that you’re hungry all the time during weight loss.
You are doing weight loss wrong if you are starving and hungry all the time and there will be hormonal and psychological consequences if you do that. That is not how you lose weight and permanently keep it off. When you are losing weight, your body should be well fueled.
Not under fueled. The under fueling is what causes you to increase cortisol and now you can’t lose weight and honestly, the majority of my clients I have to work with them to eat more food than to eat less food. It’s crazy, but that’s what our busy, stressful lives and diet culture have created for so many.
So, promise me you’re never going on another diet again starving yourself or eating too little food. If you’re hungry all the time, you know you’re eating too little and that will increase cortisol.
Now last thing I have for you. Give from your heart and not from your head and get rid of the word should. The best way I can put this is if you do a lot of things, you think you “should” do, maybe you stop shoulding all over yourself. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.