Why Stress Can Make You Fat


 by Larrian Gillespie

You’re patiently waiting for a parking spot in a crowded shopping mall when a rogue automobile comes tearing down the aisle, swinging right into your slot. You hit the horn, start screaming and vow to flatten two tires on that sucker once you find ANOTHER spot! At that very moment you are getting fat!

Stress, especially chronic stress taxes your heart, scrambles your brain and sabotages your immune system from working like the national guard to protect your body against infection and cancer. But more importantly, even stressful thoughts can deprive your tissue of oxygen and the necessary chemicals to keep your hormones in balance.

to fight or flee: that is the question

Just imagine you’re a gazelle frolicking on the Serengeti plains of Africa. Life is good and you don’t have a care in the world. That is, until a lion shows up. Suddenly your heart takes the elevator to the top floor along with your blood pressure and you pass on being the blue plate special for the day and run like hell. During those few moments, your brain faxed your adrenals to squeeze out cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline or epinephrine to give you the energy for this life-or-death emergency. Once you are safe, your body “stands down,” and resumes its normal function. Or at least that’s how our bodies were designed.

Unfortunately, in our high stress society, we put ourselves through disaster training several times a day, which triggers these hormones to grab high-octane fat and quick burning glucose for energy to supply our brain, heart and muscles. And with that comes the necessity to store more fat. There’s no question that cortisol increases fat deposition in one place, the worst place of all...the belly.

stress can break your heart

Women are the more fragile sex when it comes to their ability to handle stress, especially mental stress. While performing three mental stress tasks, womens’ brains were studied by nuclear scanning while measurements were taken of their blood pressure. Postmenopausal women have significantly greater blood pressure reactivity than men or premenopausal women when under mental stress.194 This is NOT a good thing. The presence of mental stress reduces the blood supply to the heart at lower heart rates than during exercise, giving a new meaning to the word “stress testing.”195 When researchers studied women who were stressed out in their day to day lives, or who felt tense, frustrated, sad and lonely, they were twice as likely to risk a heart attack in the following hour!196 If that wasn't enough, a ten year study of women who swallowed their anger but maintained a hostile attitude had higher plaque formation in their carotid arteries and could stroke out than women who expressed themselves and got on with life.197 Despite the decrease in coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality in the US in the past 30 years, CHD kills nearly 500,000 American women each year, with African American women having a higher prevalence of CHD risk factors and a higher death rate at a younger age than white women.198

putting your ovaries in a twist

Stress packs a whollop throughout your whole body and can affect your ability to ovulate, a precious commodity. By firing up your sympathetic nerve pathways, the celiac plexus, a major switching station behind the stomach, stocks up on norepinephrine and signals the ovaries to release the same neural transmitter. This accompanies an increase in testosterone and estradiol, causing precystic follicles to develop with a drop in ovulation.199 Before you realize it, you’ve created a cyst, which can cause pain in your side and make you feel like weeping. When sheep are faced with a barking dog (audiovisual stress) or insulin-induced hypoglycemia (metabolic stress) they produce acute rises in adrenocortical hormone (ACTH), cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine which can only be turned off by high doses of estrogen.200 If you have lowering estrogen levels, you simply don't have enough estrogen reserve to combat your stress response hormonally. And if you spend sleepless nights worrying about things, you might as well be counting pounds instead of sheep.

sick and tired

Long term stress not only causes weight gain but it does a number on your immune system. You become susceptible to colds and flus and feel just plain tired. Wounds take longer to heal because cortisol prevents the normal buildup of killer white cells in the body. Even just taking a test can stress you out and make you sick. Dental students were given wounds to the roof of their mouths three days before their final exam and again during summer vacation (does this give you an idea of what professors think of their students?). Not surprisingly, the wounds took 40% longer to heal during the test time because of a 70% decline in the production of a particular type of white blood cell messenger RNA.201 This same response was found in caretakers of Alzheimer patients, proving that psychological stress can make you a target for illness.202

who am I? where am I?

If you’ve ever spent hours looking for your keys, or that credit card bill that was due tomorrow, you may be experiencing some memory loss due to stress. Glucocorticoids, the adrenal steroid hormones secreted during stress, can damage the hippocampus or memory center of your brain by depriving the tissue of energy producing glucose.203 It only takes 4 hours of stress to uncouple the neurons in your brain thanks to the plentiful receptors for corticosterone, the stress hormone in the hippocampus. This can affect your learning ability and may even cause brain cancer.204 Repeated stress causes brain cells to shrink and can permanently damage nerve cells.205 A recent study at McGill University in Quebec found that older people with high cortisol levels had smaller hippocampi and showed greater memory loss than their less-stressed peers. Women especially are more vulnerable to stress-induced memory loss than men. Stress hormones block the pituitary’s ability to send signals to the ovary to ovulate and these same hormones make your ovaries less responsive. The net result is estrogen, leutenizing and follicle stimulating hormones are suppressed. Without estrogen, there is no control over damage from corticosterone in the brain.206 No wonder you seem to be having a “senior moment” about those car keys.

fattening up your sleep cycle can trim your weight

You open your left eye and peek at the clock. It’s 2 AM and you can’t get back to sleep, so you turn on the TV just to hear the test pattern play white noise in the background. You feel unhappy and depressed — sort of out of sync with your life. Unfortunately, disturbances in your ability to sleep can cause you to gain weight.

Serotonin, that feel good hormone, is a precursor to melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland in the brain, a pea size organ behind the hypothalamus. The role of melatonin is to help regulate your sleep, but women can have low levels due to changes in their hormone status.207 Melatonin has other roles, and one of them is the regulation of glucose by the central nervous system in a non-insulin dependent manner.208 When you sleep, melatonin levels go up in response to darkness and go down when your eyes are exposed to light. But if you are unable to stay asleep long enough, you disturb the glucose levels in your blood that keep your brain fed during the night.209 Your body rhythm gets out of whack and this causes less growth hormone to be produced.

Remember, growth hormone and estrogen mobilize fat in the body, while cortisol and insulin store fat. Growth hormone (GH) peaks during sleep just before you start to dream, so if you don’t get several episodes of rapid eye movement sleep (REM) in a night, you can’t produce sufficient GH and melatonin to keep blood glucose levels in check. But that’s not all the problem sleep deprivation can have on our health. It can lower your metabolism by dropping thyroid hormone levels, increase your blood sugar and acclerate metabolic aging.210 In short, you get fat.

Just in case you thought taking melatonin was the answer to burning the midnight oil — think again. Melatonin increases the production of somatostatin, a hormone that turns off glucagon and growth hormone production. It takes the rhythm of darkness and light in a 24 hour period to turn it back on. Sleep deprivation can lower your metabolism. Several studies have looked at obesity and sleep disturbances and found that both depression and sleep alterations were signs of insulin resistance.211-213 In particular, abdominal weight gain was confirmed by an increased waist-hip ratio due to high levels of cortisol directing fat storage to the abdomen instead of the thighs.214 Tossing and turning all night consistently inhibits the ability of the body to produce GH-releasing hormone, which signals the body to produce GH and increases the amount of insulin-like growth factor-I. This is all corrected when sleep is restored.215

don't hold your breath

Another important medical problem, sleep apnea or breath holding, can happen when you don’t get enough sleep. Studies have shown a strong link betwe en a Buddha Belly and sleep apnea. It seems sleep is a very active metabolic time for us, and if we don’t get enough oxygen during the night we can gain weight or prevent the loss of weight by reducing the production of growth hormone and estrogen. This changes your energy balance and insulin sensitivity creating a change in your brain’s response to serotonin.216 In a study of the relationship between lowered sympathetic nerve activity and obesity, researchers found that we become more sensitive to essential fatty acids when our serotonin levels drop and that makes you not only fat but depressed.217,218

stress busters

So, now that you realize how destructive stress can be in your life, what are you going to do about it? Here is what I found helpful:

  • Laugh. It may sound silly, but laughter not only supplies oxygen to your body, it creates movement. I am personally addicted to episodes of “Absolutely Fabulous” but I have been known to slip an occasional “Fawlty Towers” cassette into my player and roll on the floor in hysterics.
  • Sing. The benefits of singing are numerous, especially if you learn to sing from your diaphragm (the part beneath your rib cage... not the one in your drawer!!) I especially recommend doing it in a foreign language so as to eliminate the embarrassment of not remembering the words.
  • Dance. There is nothing more stress relieving than an attack of “Happy Feet.” It doesn’t matter what style you choose, just move and breathe and feel the rhythm of the music.
  • Walk. Take 15 minutes a day to soak in the sunshine. Not only will you improve your mood but it can help you lose weight by adjusting your melatonin cycle and making you more responsive to insulin.219
  • Pose. Just making yourself be still can help blow off steam. Yoga or meditation are ways to lower the stress hormones. For others, running helps them meditate in motion. If you’re feeling stressed, assume the balance pose or T posture. Begin by standing comfortably, arms at your sides, and slowly fold forward from the hips. Extend your arms past your ears and bring your torso parallel to the ground. Simultaneously extend your left leg straight behind you. Breathe deeply and aim for stillness. Gently come back to your standing position and switch sides.
  • Primp. Pamper yourself. Remember, you’re a goddess and worth every cent you earn or spend. Take a bubble bath, a steam shower or soak in a hot tub filled with flower petals.
  • Sleep. Get to bed by 9:00 PM. Melatonin levels start to rise around 9:30 so pay attention to how much light you are exposed to in a 24 hour period. At least 9 hours of sleep are required by your body to reset your biological clock and improve your insulin sensitivity.
  • Inhale. Pay attention to aromas. Cleopatra soaked the sails of her ship in fragrant oils to announce her approach to Rome. Try relaxing oils of ylang ylang, bergamot, tuberose, motia or orange soaked on a cotton ball. Inhaling a fragrance can stir pleasing memories which cause endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, to be released. Burn a candle or put a diffuser in your room. Just a few whiffs of lavender oil can lull you to sleep.
  • Pray. Prayer-walking, also known as “walking meditation” provides an easy way to be active and relieve stress. It can be a meandering saunter down a garden path or a brisk march around a track. The point is to walk with prayerful intentions realizing that your journey is an interior one.

Post inspirational quotes around your work area and be thankful for being alive. There’s more to life than you’ll ever realize and every day brings new chances to share.


From The Menopause Diet, by Larrian Gillespie. Copyright 1999 by Healthy Life Publications. Excerpted by arrangement with by Larrian Gillespie. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-554-3335 or click here.