More often than not, when someone reaches out to me for health advice, their primary incentive is to lose weight. There may be other goals such as gaining more energy, feeling better in their body, becoming more spiritually connected, following their passions more forcefully, becoming more physically fit, but above all, they want to lose weight. Their diets haven’t worked (because diets don’t work), and they want some help losing ‘stubborn weight gain.’
The first question I usually ask them is “how are your stress levels?”
Judging by the pause at the other end of the line or the blank stare, this question is usually unexpected. I’m not sure what they anticipate that I will ask, but likely something to do with what their diet consists of, or what their exercise regime is.
Cortisol & Weight Loss
Whether the goal is to feel healthier in your body, lose weight, gain more energy, or all of the above, stress, specifically the hormone cortisol, has a significant influence on your ability to lose excess weight and feel well.
Most of us are familiar with that ‘inner-tube’… that middle layer of ‘stubborn fat’ that seems to linger around the midline regardless of the extra miles you are tacking on, how many planks you are doing, or how many salads you are eating. This is likely stress induced. Of course, there could be exceptions, such as underlying health issues like thyroid disease. However, if you are otherwise healthy, it is probable that the stubborn weight is holding on for dear life because of raised cortisol levels (i.e. a high amount of unhealthy stress).
An excessive amount of stress will cause cortisol levels to rise, which will increase the storage of visceral fat cells. And where in the body does this storage typically occur? That’s right, the stomach. Sometimes the thighs, or back, maybe the face, or arms – but this type of fat is most prominent in the tummy. The same area we want so desperately to be flat and tone (and it’s perfectly acceptable and beautiful if it’s not).
Raised cortisol, commonly referred to as the ‘stress hormone,’ may contribute or cause additional ailments as well such as low energy, low libido, weakened the immune system, brain function, heart function, depression, spiritual disconnect, and a slew of other conditions.
Cortisol itself is not bad.
It is the buildup of cortisol that can wreak havoc on the mind, body, and spirit. In fact, cortisol plays a significant role in protecting our body. Similar to the way that bacteria and fungi might seem all bad, but actually protect our body. It’s an overgrowth of a specific bacteria or fungi that will cause a potentially detrimental imbalance; which will bring about an entire host of problems. The well-known fight-or-flight response is an example of a condition in which cortisol protects the human body. Yes, cortisol plays a role in keeping us alive! It helps to keep many of the primary functions within the body running optimally. Cortisol has an important role in keeping our nervous system healthfully calm, inflammation to a minimum, immune system strong, blood pressure at a happy medium, and blood sugar in check.
The Impact of Stress on Your Body
Stress, in-and-of-itself is not bad. In 1936, Hans Selye, a Canadian biochemist, defined two types of stress; eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Examples of eustress would perhaps be buying your first home, getting married, starting a new desirable job, or traveling for pleasure. Distress on the other hand, maybe things like financial difficulties, divorce, the loss of job, loss of loved one, or traveling for work.
And then… there is the stress of stressing out about losing weight! Or, the stress of being so stressed. According to Under Pressure: Your Brain on Conflict, Psychology Today,
“The problem is that the worry itself can harm you as much as the outcome you’re worried about. While you’re stressing over what might happen, your body is releasing adrenaline and cortisol as if you were actually in danger.”
It is absolutely imperative that we do everything we can to reduce the amount of eustress stress in our lives.
The longstanding Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr comes to mind:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things that I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
We must change the things we can and accept the things that we cannot. Acceptance may be one of the most difficult yet crucial elements to peace, calm, and happiness.
Above all, I firmly believe that what we feed our mind and our soul is far more important than what we feed our body – this coming from someone who has been obsessed (yes, obsessed) with nutrition for the last decade of my life.
Worry. Struggle. Hurry. Question. Scheme. Anticipate.
This is the unyielding way of life for many. We live on the edge of our seats, gritting our teeth and waiting for the next moment, believing that it will be better or more important than the present.
Calmness, peace, and acceptance come with the present moment.
The following quote is by Lao Tzu and is one that I refer to often in my life:
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Given that raised cortisol promotes weight gain (stress inhibits weight-loss) and contributes or causes other (and sometimes more severe) health struggles, it is essential that we manage our stress. There are countless tools and resources to tap into to learn effective stress management. What works for one person may not work for another. The best way to find what works for you is to simply experiment and embrace trial and error.
Ways to Manage Stress
Yoga, meditation, nature, traveling, walking, jogging, lifting, talking, writing, socializing, music, metaphysical healing, cooking, sunshine (natural Vitamin D!) are all tools and techniques that I use to help manage my stress. As you can see these are not all in the same bucket. Some are physical, some mental, some social, some solo, some spiritual – and more often than not, a combination of many different types.
I have found that it’s also important to let go of what doesn’t serve me and continue to adopt new practices that suit me as I grow and evolve in life. What use to work in the past, may not work today.
There are two important topics I would like to address before I close, and they are: stress and eating disorders and stress and digestion. Both of these topics are extremely involved and deserve a post all of their own, but I wanted to mention the substantial impact they have on our health and wellbeing.
Stress and eating disorders
Stress/raised cortisol levels play a significant role in the development or onset of eating disorders, such as Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge-eating, and Orthorexia. Or it may trigger the advancement of an already existing condition.
When we are stressed, our lives feel chaotic – or uncertain – we want to control anything and everything that we can. Food happens to be one thing that many turn to for this false sense of control.
Of course, control is not the only reason why – but it is a major component and worth mentioning.
Stress and Digestion
How are we to properly digest our food when our stomach is in knots? Literally, our bowels can be constricted because of stress. In this fight or flight response state, our systems are all hands-on-deck for survival – ensuring we are kept ALIVE and our digestive system becomes a battleground as a result.
We cannot and will not absorb the nutrients we need from the food we are eating if our minds and bodies are in a state of panic. And what happens when we are not absorbing the nutrients we need? You guessed it – we either gain or lose weight in an unbalanced and often disproportionate fashion.
Imagine, for a moment, a small child. This child is frightened, confused, and sad. Do you think the child is going to assimilate the nutrients his or her body needs and properly digest their food?
So, my dear ones, nurture your inner child so that you may eat in peace, and fuel your body with the nutrients that it so greatly deserves.
ABOUT ASHLEY E. BAILEY
Ashley E. Bailey is a writer, health enthusiast, yoga fanatic, and startup geek. Currently residing along the Front Range in Colorado, she has lived all over the United States – all the while experimenting with her own diet in effort to manage food allergies and autoimmune conditions. Over the years, she has become increasingly involved in the wellness industry, is overcoming eating disorders, and is passionate about helping others discover balance, find peace within, feel comfortable in their skin – and live their life according to their most authentic self. You can follow her adventures on her lifestyle blog, aebailey.com.