Is Stress Making You Fat?

The same thing that saved us years ago, is what's killing us in modern day society. 


The stress response hormone. 

In the cave man days, "stressors" were starving, prey, predators, family safety- life or death situations. 

Now days, "stressors" are work, traffic, technology, husbands, wives, family, financials, food, toxins, alcohol, deadlines, with a list that goes on and on. Certainly not life or death predicaments. 

Both, then and now stressors, illicit the same response- a raise in cortisol levels. 

So, how does this effect our modern day health? 

High cortisol levels stimulate gluconeogenesis (making glucose). This then raises blood sugar levels. High blood sugar levels in the cave man days allowed for muscle stimulation to chase prey or run from predators, ultimately aiding in survival. To the office man sitting at his desk, raised glucose levels can be catastrophic, as he doesn't use up the glucose on a day to day basis, leading higher blood sugar levels over time. High blood sugar levels also lead to higher levels of visceral adipose tissue (fat storage in the mid section). Over time, excess weight stored around major organs can lead to metabolic diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. 

 The current cross-sectional findings support the hypothesis that stress-induced cortisol secretion may contribute to central fat and demonstrate a link between psychological stress and risk for disease.

High cortisol levels stimulate visceral adipose fat tissue growth (fat tissue surrounding all major organs). Visceral adipose obesity interferes with chemical signaling between major organs and can lead to various metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, etc. 

Visceral adipose tissue is a hormonally active component of total body fat, which possesses unique biochemical characteristics that influence several normal and pathological processes in the human body. Abnormally high deposition of visceral adipose tissue is known as visceral obesity. This body composition phenotype is associated with medical disorders such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and several malignancies including prostate, breast and colorectal cancers

If your body is in a high stress environment, you may find it difficult to reach weight loss goals, gain muscle, change body composition and remain healthy over all. You're blood sugar levels could rise, then continue to rise until you are "borderline" diabetic. Your doctor may threaten you with blood pressure medication. Eventually you'll slip away from optimal lab values and creep into "at risk" levels with a 6 month warning from your doctor before having to turn to meds. 

Of the above "stressors" (work, kids, wives, husbands, cleaning, financials, food, alcohol, toxins, traffic, technology, ect) in daily life, there's some you can control and some that you can't. My challenge to you is to begin with the things that you do have control over first and make a change. 

  • Are you nourishing your body in a way that decreases stress or are you hitting drive-thrus, convenience foods, highly processed food, sweet treats, etc? 
  • Do you participate in some sort of physical activity or do you spend the majority of your day sedentary? Get a step counter- aim for 10,000 steps per day (it's hard!). Go for a walk after dinner. Run for 25 minutes before heading into the office. It doesn't have to be time consuming, just get moving. 
  • Do you find that you are always struggling with finances? Put yourself on a budget that makes sense and is doable. Live within your means. Skip the $5 dollar lattes.
  • Do you serve yourself a cocktail every night to "relax" from the stress of the day? Find something else- go for a walk, talk with your spouse, read a book, yoga. No need to give up social cocktails, but if you're using it to "de-stress" you're actually contributing to more stress on your body. 

These days you are working 60 hours a week at a high stress job that lands you on your butt the majority of the day and leaves you no energy to take care of the body that keeps you alive. Make it a priority. For yourself. For your family. For your kids that will have grandkids that you will want to meet. For your quality of life. You are given one body- respect and appreciate it!

By: Tess Chupinsky, BS Bachelor of Biology Pre-Med, PN1


The following scholarly journals were used in writing this article:

Stress and Body Shape

The clinical importance of visceral adiposity: a critical review of methods for visceral adipose tissue analysis