The Stress / Hormone / Weight Gain Conundrum
I am a strong advocate for learning how to manage stress because the negative effects of chronic, long-term stress cannot be understated.
Weight gain, crazy hormones and poor gut health are the top 3 most common negative health issues I see and the list of symptoms each of these conditions causes, unfortunately, is endless.
Our digestive system takes a direct hit when stress levels are on the rise and our nervous system sends us into a frenzy of anxiety. But what about our endocrine system? Well that's another story...
Our hormones also suffer a huge blow when our stress hormones; specifically cortisol, are constantly spiking and remaining high for long periods of time. And for us busy, multi-tasking women, who seem to be battling stressful situations around every corner, this is not good news for our health for so many reason. Here's why...
1. Cortisol & the Link to Estrogen & Progesterone)
When our stress hormone cortisol is constantly being secreted to higher levels than is ideal for significant periods of time, it naturally reduces our level of progesterone in the female body. And we need sufficient levels of progesterone to balance out our estrogen levels so we don't suffer from estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance has been linked to PMS, fibroids, PCOS, breast and ovarian cancer and menstruation difficulties.
Now unfortunately, our estrogen levels are already likely higher than they should be because of amount of xenoestrogens in our environment that our female body comes in contact with over our lifetime. The more fast-paced our world has become, the more "convenient", "artificial" and "processed" our foods, skincare products, cosmetics and household cleaning products have become. Everyone seems more interested in finding a quicker way to do things, and gives little thought to the chemical ingredients often found in these products which are essential to make things work quicker, better, easier, etc. Chemicals and other artificial ingredients that are added to products that we eat, inhale or absorb through our skin are toxic to your body. They fall into a category called "xenoestrogens" which simply means "foreign estrogen".
Xenoestrogens are able to mimic estrogen in the female body which in turn increases the level of estrogen. So it is important that we try to consume, organic foods without fertilisers, hormones and preservatives and use more natural, plant-based, chemical-free skin care products and cosmetics. For a more detailed list of typical "xenoestrogens" in our environment and foods (phytoestrogens) you can consume to try and counteract the harmful effects of xenoestrogens, CLICK HERE.
Now you can see why it is so important to have significant levels of progesterone in our body, to reduce the ever increasing levels of estrogen. So when progesterone levels are reduced as a result of increasing cortisol levels (our "fight or flight" stress hormone that we release over and over again when we are constantly experiencing anxiety and overwhelm) we are fighting a losing battle. High levels of cortisol also drive the need for a quick energy source to help the body flee from the perceived stressor so the body burns sugar instead of fat for energy. This may further explain why women suffering from chronic stress find it diifficult to shift weight that they have gained.
And if that wasn't bad enough, cortisol tends to sit in the fat cells around the female mid-section which might explain why we find it so difficult to get rid of our "muffin top" no matter how much we eat clean or exercise.
2. Cortisol and the Link to Insulin & Blood-Sugar Levels
When our cortisol levels rise due to excessive stress, our blood sugar levels also rise because our body burns sugar (glucose) for energy. The only way however for the glucose to get into the cells to be used as energy is for the pancreas to secrete the hormone, insulin. Not only is excessive insulin secretion taxing on the pancreas over time which could eventually lead to insulin resistance, but high levels of insulin will result in immediate cravings for sugar once the blood sugar levels drop off.
Now we have all experienced the dreaded sugar and carb cravings before and know just how powerful they can be to overcome when you are desperately trying to eat healthy and lose weight. So what's the answer to getting rid of those cravings? Well part of the answer is to try to keep your cortisol levels regulated by learning how to manage your stress more effectively. Less cortisol = lower blood sugar levels which means your body will need to tap into it's fat stores for energy if sugar isn't readily available.
3. Cortisol and the Link to Thyroid Hormone
Now unfortunately, over time, chronic stress will exhaust the adrenal glands altogether. These are the glands responsible for releasing your stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline). When the adrenal glands become exhausted, the body faces an entirely different challenge....extremely LOW levels of cortisol.
This has detrimental effects also because cortisol, although not healthy at excessive levels, is required in moderation to help support specific bodily functions; specifically those regulated by the thyroid. So when cortisol levels begin to plummet, the health of the thyroid begins to suffer. The adrenal glands and the thyroid ideally should work together in harmony to regulate our sleep, temperature, fluid balance and metabolism to name a few. But when either the adrenal glands or the thyroid gland are struggling, the other will undoubtedly suffer.
4. What Exactly IS Stress?
The word "stress" gets thrown around a lot these days, so what type of stress are we talking about that is responsible for jacking up our cortisol levels and wreaking havoc on our overall hormone balance? Well there are more sources of stress than you think...
A. Physical stressors such as injury, infection or any type of physical pain in the body will cause our stress hormones to rise.
B. Dietary stressors (stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, sugary foods, high-starchy foods, food allergies and sensitivities)
C. Environmental stressors (chemicals, toxic fumes and other artificial ingredients that can be inhaled from the air or absorbed through the skin)
D. Lifestyle stressors (smoking, lack of sleep, lack of exercise or excessive exercise, mental anxiety
To keep our cortisol levels regulated we need to pay attention to all of these sources of stress and do everything possible to limit our exposure and manage stressful situations more effectively.
5. Summary - Stress and the Link to Weight Gain
So to summarise, excessive stress disrupts a healthy regulation of cortisol; first by promoting too much of this hormone and eventually by hindering the production of it in sufficient quantities. No matter where you are on the adrenal health scale (adrenal over-stimulation or adrenal fatigue/exhaustion), your efforts to lose and maintain a healthy weight are going to struggle.
Excess cortisol drives up estrogen levels which also drive up your blood sugar levels. In turn, your insulin levels have to rise to remove the excess sugar (glucose) from the blood. When the glucose levels then plummet, the cravings kick in. PLUS, excess glucose gets stored in our fat cells. Essentially the body's fat burning mode is turned off because it is getting more than enough energy from your blood sugar. Make sense?
So you can see why you are gaining weight, but what makes it so hard to shift once it has been stored? Well that's because the fat cells are able to stretch significantly to house all the excess glucose that was removed from the bloodstream. And once these fat cells become larger, it is very difficult for them to shrink back down to their original size.
6. How to regulate cortisol levels
Thankfully, you do have some control over your cortisol levels but it will take some consistent practice and patience on your part.
1. Learn to manage stress more effectively by implementing relaxation techniques, making dietary changes and being aware of your environment and chemicals within your household
2. Support your adrenal glands. Vitamin C is a very important nutrient as is Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid) and magnesium for strengthening the health of the adrenal glands.
3. Get plenty of sleep. Go to bed in a dark room and get into the habit of regular sleeping and waking hours. Avoid eating within 2 hours of eating so digestion doesn't wake you up and give yourself some quiet time without any bright screens for at least 30 minutes before closing your eyes.
4. Practice self-care. Treat yourself to a warm bath, a walk in nature, some positive self-talk, a laugh with good friends or simply an hour to disconnect and do absolutely NOTHING when you can.
5. Consider replacing your morning coffee with a herbal tea with adaptogenic herbs (rhodiola, ashwaghanda, holy basil, etc.)
If you are suffering from middle-age weight gain and feel it has only gotten worse over years of chronic stress and now hormonal imbalance, we need to talk!
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