Weight Gain, Stress and the Adrenal Glands

Stress can be a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset. Whether the stress is real or imagined, the body kicks into the “fight or flight” mode, also known as the stress response, when it senses danger.  The release of the hormones responsible for this response occurs in the adrenal glands, two glands that sit atop the kidneys.  In small doses, stress hormone may motivate us, help us rise to the challenge and perform well under pressure.  Beyond a certain point however, stress hormone is no longer beneficial and can produce a negative impact on our health.

For some, stress plays such a persistent role in each day that we consider its presence a way of life. If stress becomes so chronic that it results in a perpetual state of uneasiness, hurriedness and anxiousness then the mind and body pay the price over time. Changes in mood, weight, sleep habits, appetite, cravings, and energy levels are warning signs that stress is starting to negatively impact our biochemistry.  A patient may also experience memory problems, difficulty concentrating, increased amount of worrying, IBS, more illness and the presence of hormone related symptoms such as PMS, irregular menses or decreased libido.  Many of these symptoms are the result of overworked and fatigued adrenal glands that are no longer able to keep up with the demands we are placing on our body and mind.

One of the commonly troublesome consequences of chronically elevated stress hormone is the negative impact it has on our weight. As a naturopathic doctor, I spend a significant amount of time working with my patients on weight loss.  It is important for patients to understand the cascade of events that occur after a release of the stress hormone cortisol.  On a daily basis, healthy adrenal glands produce cortisol in what is a called a diurnal pattern which results in low level fluctuations in cortisol, ideally higher in the morning to give us our “get-up-and-go” and gradually declining throughout the afternoon, becoming low at night for a restful, restorative sleep.  Upon becoming stressed however, the adrenal glands release cortisol to a higher level than we see in a typical diurnal pattern as well as adrenaline and a hormone called corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH).  The stress hormones allow to instant energy and provide the biochemistry you need to fight or flee from your stressors. High levels of adrenaline and CRH decrease appetite temporarily and cortisol aids in replenishing your appetite and your body after the stress has passed, and lasts longer in your system.

There is a big problem, however, and that is in responding to today’s stressors, we seldom fight or flee but rather wallow in our in our frustration and anger at a desk during our work day, in a car while in traffic or on a couch or in bed while trying to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.  The neuroendocrine system is not aware that you are not physically fighting or fleeing, so the hormone signal to replenish the body’s nutritional stores is still released, making you feel hungry. In addition, it is important to know that during fight and flight, the muscles use glucose as fuel.  This is a reason you crave carbohydrates when stressed.  In an effort to provide the muscles with what they need, glucose stores from the liver are released into the blood stream. Unfortunately, sitting at a desk, on a couch, stuck in traffic or lying in bed do not require you to burn this fuel and as a result, these unused sugar molecules are stored as fat  instead.  Chronic overstimulation of this stress cascade can lead to weight gain and often in the form of “visceral fat” around the midsection.  Some research shows that abdominal fat causes specific chemical changes that can lead to lower metabolism and cravings for sweets, possibly leading to even more weight gain.

The naturopathic approach to weight loss is multifactorial, however, assessing a patient’s stressors and more importantly, how they handle their stress, is very important. In addition to dietary and exercise recommendations, the implementation of stress management skills is essential to decrease exposure to the stress and reduce the negative impact it has on the body and mind.  Proper rest so the individual can rejuvenate is also critical.  The use of supplements that nurture the adrenal glands and stress pathways, reduce anxiousness and improve the ability to sleep may also be beneficial.

Laura Jones

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