“If I’m this fat, then why am I so hungry?” I’ve heard this question countless times in my career, and it is a good question. If you are storing too many calories around your waist, hips, and thighs, why does your brain signal that you are hungry? Most importantly, why does it send the signal to eat the three foods most commonly linked to obesity?
An ENOURMOUS amount of research conducted over the past two decades shows that stress is responsible for obesity and diabetes. Studies also show that stress makes it hard to lose weight and can trigger the signals that send you running to the pantry. This is one reason some people can’t seem to lose weight no matter how well they eat or how much they exercise. I believe stress is one of the most important, yet most ignored, factors driving the “Diabesity” epidemic.
Stress is a bigger problem than you think.
“Stress” is defined as “any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both, tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual.”
Most people only think of psychological stress when they hear the term “stress.” When asked what causes stress, they might say things like losing a job, having a fight with your spouse, driving in traffic, or being audited by the IRS.
While it’s true that psychological challenges like this are major stressors, what many people don’t realize is that stress is also caused by physiological challenges such as:
- chronic infections
- autoimmune disease
- environmental toxins
- too much exercise
Even if your levels of psychological stress are pretty low, any of the conditions listed above can provoke a chronic stress reaction in your body. As we’ll see in the next section, chronic stress can make you both overweight and diabetic.
Common ways stress makes you overweight and diabetic.
When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day. It should be high in the mornings when you wake up. This is what helps you get out of bed and start your day. Then it should gradually taper off throughout the day, so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep.
Current research shows that chronic stress can increase absolute cortisol levels, and more importantly, disrupt the natural cortisol rhythm. It is this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. Listed below are several effects:
- raises blood sugar
- makes it harder for glucose to get into your cells (leads to diabetes)
- makes you crave sugar
- reduces your fat burning capabilities
- causes hormonal imbalances
- makes cells less sensitive to insulin
- increases belly and liver fat
- increases your speed of fat storage
- raises levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in your blood
Each one of these consequences alone could make you overweight and diabetic. When combined, these changes are almost a perfect recipe for “Diabesity.”
Our bodies aren’t made for chronic stress!
One of the reasons chronic stress is so destructive is that our bodies are not designed to deal with it. We’re only designed to handle short-term, acute stress. For most of human existence, stress may have been caused by the pursuit of a lion or hunting for our next meal. In fact, this type of stress may even be beneficial for our bodies because it improves our ability to react to the challenges of life.
What we’re not adapted for, however, is the chronic, unrelenting stress that has become so common in modern life. This type of stress provokes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, or what psychologists call a “defeat response.” It’s the defeat response that leads to increased fat storage, abdominal obesity, tissue breakdown, suppression of the immune system, and all of the other effects listed above, that directly cause obesity and diabetes.
A closer look at insomnia, dieting and exercise.
I’d like to take a closer look at three common stressors that can make us overweight and diabetic:
Insomnia, dieting and exercise.
More than a third of Americans suffer from insomnia, with 42 million prescriptions for sleeping medications filled in 2007. Several studies show that sleep deprivation elevates cortisol and makes it more likely that you’ll gain weight and develop diabetes. Sleep reduction can significantly reduce insulin sensitivity, increase your appetite, and impair your ability to burn carbohydrates. A sustained loss of sleep for just 3 hours each night can cause a weight gain of 4-5%!
Dieting, alone, can become a major cause of stress and decrease your ability to lose weight. It’s estimated that between 50-60% of Americans are dieting at any given time. That’s a huge number. And while it may seem counter-intuitive that dieting contributes to obesity and diabetes, it makes perfect sense when you understand that dieting is a stressor that disrupts our cortisol rhythm. A 2001 study showed that stressing about food or doing overly restrictive diets raised cortisol levels and caused individuals to feel hungrier. Diets that restrict fat intake were shown to be the worst offenders, as fat is an essential component to human survival. When these diets were combined with sleep deprivation, cortisol levels skyrocketed and caused trauma to the endocrine system.
Finally, although not common in the general population, too much exercise can also predispose you to weight gain and diabetes by raising cortisol levels, breaking down muscle tissue and increasing fat storage. This is especially true if cortisol levels are already elevated or disrupted by other stressors, like gut infections, insomnia, food toxins, or psychological factors. It’s not uncommon in the endurance exercise culture to encounter someone who eats well and exercises their brains out, but cannot lose weight. They are often surprised when I tell them they need to exercise less if they want to lose weight and recover their health. What they may not realize is that cortisol is a catabolic hormone. It breaks the body down. While this might sound like a good thing for those trying to lose weight, it’s not. Muscle tissue is metabolically active and actually helps us lose weight. A reduction of lean muscle tissue may drop a few pounds in the short-term, but it will predispose you to weight gain in the future by impairing your metabolism. (This is another reason why caloric restricted diets, which break down muscle tissue, don’t work in the long-term and even make things worse.)
If you are struggling with maintaining weight or blood sugar control, don’t diet. Get plenty of sleep and take it easy with exercise. You’ll be a lot better off.
Stress Triggers Cravings for the Toxic!
Most people would agree that when they are under long periods of stress, healthy lifestyles suffer. Is it just a time constraint problem? Is it a need for comfort, fixing the depression that naturally comes with stress? Or is it a matter of returning to old habits during hard times? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.
Stress triggers a survival mode that our bodies are programmed to adhere to. This creates a fight or flight response, causing us to think quickly, and make choices that immediately improve our situation. Often, this causes us to return to the tried and true habits of survival. When it comes to nutrition, this causes us to have cravings for the worst and most toxic foods that are present in our culture.
The 3 major dietary toxins are:
- Cereal grains (especially refined flour)
- Omega-6 industrial seed oils (corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, etc.)
- Fructose (especially high-fructose corn syrup)
At the simplest level, a toxin is something capable of causing disease or damaging tissue when it enters the body. When most people hear the word “toxin,” they think of chemicals like pesticides, heavy metals, or other industrial pollutants. But even nutrients like these can have devastating effects on our bodies.
Take a donut for example, the staple of a stress filled lifestyle. The donut is the perfect “diabesity” food. It contains refined flour (cereal grains,) industrial seed oils (plus trans fats for an added bonus,) and plenty of high-fructose corn syrup. We all know what a steady diet of donuts can create, yet we return to it like a moth to a flame.
So how do we stop the stress and return to a consistent healthy lifestyle even during times of stress? That is what our 3 week, 6 hour
[LivFit] is October 15th, 22nd, and 29th from 6-8pm each night
Call our Roanoke, Virginia office at: 1-540-344-1055 to sign up and receive more information that will help you on your journey to improved health. Please check out our Facebook page too. You will find recipes, tips, suggestions, and community!
Dr. Daryl Rich, DC, CSCS