None of us are strangers to stress. Work, money, kids, relationships–heck, just getting out of bed in the morning can feel stressful, especially during these strange pandemic days. And while we know stress isn’t great for our overall health, more and more studies are finding a connection between stress and weight gain, making stress management more important than ever to helping us maintain a healthy weight.
Fight or Flight
Part of the physiological connection between stress and weight gain has to do with our fight or flight response. This served as a very basic and beneficial survival mechanism: when we encountered predators our adrenal glands released stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) giving us the energy we needed to fight or flee. One way or the other, the stressor was resolved quickly (e.g. either we successfully fought or fled from the predator–or we didn’t). Today, our body still goes into fight or flight when we experience stress, but now it’s often chronic. Having a chronically activated stress response can lead to chronically high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones. This can throw insulin and blood sugar levels out of whack, leading to weight gain and weight-loss resistance. Increased levels of cortisol are also related to increased levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone that helps regulate appetite. (More on this later.)
High levels of cortisol can influence the food choices we make. Some studies suggest that when we’re stressed out, we’re more likely to reach for pizza or a bag of chips–basically any higher calorie, sweet or fatty foods that give us temporary comfort. Coach Shandy recommends replacing unhealthy snacking with healthier, physically and mentally calming behaviors–meditation, yoga, deep breathing, listening to music, walking, reading or spending time in nature–to reduce stress.
Chronic stress can also negatively affect our sleep. And poor sleep can negatively affect our food choices and eating habits. (Yes, it’s all connected!) Stress strains the adrenal glands (responsible for releasing cortisol) and cortisol is crucial for controlling blood sugar levels, regulating metabolism, reducing inflammation and aiding memory formation. Cortisol can increase at night from low blood sugar, anticipatory stress and pain. This nocturnal spike can cause sleep disturbances. Chronically elevated cortisol can increase blood sugar levels and cause insulin resistance, meaning your cells can’t use blood sugar for energy. Insulin resistance and inflammation can lead to excess belly fat and weight gain and make weight loss more challenging.
One of the important players in this domino effect is our body’s endocannabinoid system, which directly influences appetite and the brain’s “reward” system. Yes, cannabinoids are compounds found in cannabis (a.k.a marijuana). Endocannabinoids are actually substances that our bodies produce all on their own. However, cannabis and the endocannabinoids that our bodies produce naturally do have something in common: they both can increase our appetite.
Research has shown that participants in a controlled setting who underwent sleep deprivation had increased endocannabinoid levels, which led to overeating and unhealthy food choices (i.e., foods higher in sugar, fat and starch), compared to participants who were well rested. This suggests that poor sleep may make us feel hungrier, consume more calories and be more likely to eat for “pleasure” instead of genuine hunger.
Poor sleep has also been shown to increase ghrelin, a hormone that increases hunger, while decreasing leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite. In other words, with a sleep debt comes more of the hormone that makes us feel hungry, and less of the hormone that makes us feel satiated. Sleep is just one of many factors that impact leptin and ghrelin levels, but it may be a factor if you’ve been struggling with your weight loss goals despite eating healthy exercising regularly.
Sleep needs vary as we age, but the majority of adults need between seven and nine hours. Contrary to popular belief, the person who can “survive” on less than seven hours of sleep is quite rare. (Research suggests that weight gain is often associated with getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.) If you need to increase your sleep, focus on small increments (i.e. 10 minutes at a time) and establish that pattern first before adding on.
For tips on getting a good night’s sleep, check out our other blog posts:
Although we can’t always control the stress in our lives, we can control how we respond to it. This is why a regular practice of yoga, breathing, meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction is an important part of any weight-loss plan. For more tips and advice, check in with the Yes Health team on your app.
Yes Health is a low-cost, weight loss and diabetes-prevention program committed to helping everyone live healthier, happier lives.