Energy Levels

Stress Response and Cortisol: The Cause of Weight Gain and How to Address It

May 23, 2022

Hi, I’m Angela
I'm a functional medicine practitioner & hormone expert working primarily with women in their 40's and 50's to create lasting health.
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It’s no secret that when we’re stressed, our bodies tend to go into “fight or flight” mode. Our heart rates increase, our blood pressure rises, and our cortisol levels spike. You might think of all of this as a bad thing, but there’s one side effect of this response that can be very harmful: weight gain. This blog post will explore the link between stress and cortisol and how to address it so you can maintain a healthy weight despite any stress in your life.

Weight loss resistance is when it’s almost impossible for you to lose weight. And if you do, as soon as you come off-plan, it comes right back on. I know, it can be very frustrating. I know many women that feel like they’ve just basically given up and they’re just going to accept that they are not at their optimal weight.

Most of these women are not feeling their best, but they just don’t know what to try anymore. What I see, so commonly when I work with women in my practice, is that this is something that comes repeatedly. Some root causes often are brought about and not fully addressed. If they are, they may be just not addressed in the right way.

One of those things has to do with chronically high imbalances concerning stress. The primary stress hormone, that is produced in response to the stress, is cortisol. Often, what happens when women want to lose weight is, we think the most natural way to do it is to start reducing calories and exercise more.

Extreme Intermittent Fasting: Go or No?

Some women will even go to extremes with intermittent fasting. I have worked with women that have fast for 22 out of 24 hours a day. They’ve done this because it was the only way that they could figure out how to lose weight. They’ve done this for several months and achieved the expected results.

They did get the result they were looking for after several months. The problem was, that this practice puts the body under an incredible amount of stress. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, goes up. If we don’t eat for long periods of the day, even our body and our brain gets hungry too and want some nutrition.

Our body will start to pump out some of this cortisol because lit would think: “What are you doing to me? Why am I under so much stress? I can’t figure out how to get myself back into balance. You’re just stressing me out. I’m going to pump out more cortisol until you pay attention and do something to help me lower the stress.” Therefore, it will use hunger as a response as well as a signal.

Over time, cortisol can get too high. It can get too out of balance. When cortisol levels get high, this can cause a lot of inflammation in our bodies. 

This might make it harder to lose weight. It is because when we have inflammation that’s too high, it can start to promote blood sugar imbalances as well.  As mentioned, this can really counteract what we’re trying to do.

Often when weight is out of balance, blood sugars are out of balance. This is part of the reason why women often have weight loss resistance. You’re not going to get your blood sugars back into balance if your cortisol goes sky high from doing, as previously stated, some of this extreme dieting, extreme exercising, or really long intermittent fast.

We need to understand how can get the body balanced more naturally and not have a high cortisol production. Over time it’s going to counteract our weight loss goal. Then as soon as you start to go back to a normal way of eating and get rid of some of this extremism, usually the weight comes right back.

Point is, this isn’t the ideal way to promote weight loss, but rather a healthy metabolism, and weight management for the long term. 

The Busy-ness of Life Type of Stress

The other thing I see that’s really common, which is related to cortisol being high, has to do with stress from being too busy. This is one of the root causes I find most commonly with women in the age group of late 30s to mid 40s and 50s.

I see so many women, talking to them on the phone or face-to-face, and we talk about where they are at in their life. I ask them: “What are you doing right now? How many tasks do you have to do in the day?” A lot of women are working, taking care of either family at home or extended family, aging parents, or they’re volunteering for several different things. Some of them may be doing social events. 

They’re always out busy on the weekend or after work, doing things. They’re barely ever home for that matter. They don’t have a lot of time to cook, take care of themselves, or even just allow themselves to relax and have those stress levels come down. They are really in this kind of Go-Go-Go mentality all the time.

When our bodies are in a Go-Go-Go mentality all the time, we are producing more cortisol. The body is perceiving this as going into a bit of fight or flight response. This is because we are not allowing ourselves to calm down and relax. We are not letting our nervous system and adrenaline come down. This means, that sometimes the weight loss resistance can be just related to purely doing too much.

We need to slow down a little bit. We need to prioritize what we’re doing, as far as tasks in the day are concerned. We need to do things that help us relax. This will help balance out our stress levels. We should avoid doing things that make us more stressed out.

A note on Insulin and Sex Hormone Regulation

There is one other thing that can often create cortisol imbalances over the long term as we are aging. Especially as women, we’re getting closer to that perimenopausal-menopausal shift in life. One of the reasons for this is because our insulin levels can’t as easily regulate when our sex hormones change. We have to be more mindful of what we’re doing. Again, being mindful isn’t the same as going into starvation mode. Remember being extreme doesn’t always get the results we are looking for.

Emotional Stress

Something that also creeps up in this time of life is emotional stress, in particular: past trauma. There could be a traumatic history from as far back as when you were a child. There could have been something that happened with a close relationship. It could possibly be a marriage, a close friendship, a close family member who’s somehow involved.

There are all kinds of things that can happen as far as relationship stress can create a lot of cortisol imbalance. Depending on what you do for work and your past history, you might have some post-traumatic stress disorder, even. I know this is very common with certain types of lines of work as well.

I work with women who are in healthcare and emergency care. They worked in various types of jobs where they are exposed to more types of trauma as well. This can also create cortisol imbalances. We need to think about your trauma history and emotional trauma. These things can mess with your nervous system and make your cortisol levels go crazy. We need to work on these things to help get you back to feeling normal. That’s often something that can help in metabolism and to improve in weight management. 

This has nothing to do with limiting calories or exercising more. It might be helpful to exercise from a nervous system perspective to a certain degree. But again, that intense-exercise-bootcamp style to lose weight type of workout is not going to help with this type of chronic stress on the body. It needs to be addressed in different ways. Often, there is a component to this. Like with the second case where you need to relax and slow down a little bit as well, and not always be so busy. 

Hence, these are the top three potential causes of the rises and imbalances in cortisol. We see how much they are contributing to, and could be even one of the primary root causes, as to why you’re not able to lose weight in this age group in this time of life.

I find they’re very common. It’s important for us to break it down and understand them. It might be any of those cases, it might be all of those that are influencing your cortisol levels. We need to figure out what it is for you to help customize a strategy to help you get the balance back. In the process, your metabolism can start to improve more naturally. 

If you’re carrying around extra weight, it’s time to find out why. It might not be what you think. The root cause of your weight and balance issues could be stress-related, and until you address that, you’ll never see long-term success with your health goals. We can start to understand if it would be a good fit for us to work together. We will reveal the root cause of your weight and balance issues. We will help you develop a plan for long-term healing and health. Schedule a discovery call today to get started!

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If you’re looking for a more natural way to manage your health, please contact us for a discovery call to see if our approach would be appropriate for your situation.



DISCLAIMER:  The information in this email is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only and does not replace a consultation with your own doctor/health professional 

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