As a culture, we most often think that “being stressed” is only related to our emotions, yet few of us understand the dramatic effect it has on us physically.  Our adrenal glands govern our stress response, by secreting hormones relative to our stress levels. When the adrenal glands are overworked, the body reacts by storing fat and calories.

Our ancient evolution has everything to do with why this happens.  Many years ago, if you were being chased by a lion, your adrenals quickly went into the fight-or-flight mode, releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol).  When the threat is over, our body relaxes but our instincts cause us to refuel with carbohydrate dense foods that are most often stored as fat.  When high levels of cortisol are streaming through the blood, we are much less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that gives the signal to the brain that we are full. Therefore, there may be a tendency to eat more than usual, as it feels like a need for survival.

The real problem is that these physiological responses take place whether the threat is real or psychological.  Because most of the everyday stressors we experience on a day to day basis don’t require our fight or flight response we really do not need the extra calories our body is so efficiently storing.  The other significant change is that many of us are living in a constant state of stress, which causes high levels of cortisol to be released on a regular basis for extended periods of time.  There are so many pressures these days on women to be great moms while also climbing the corporate ladder AND to look great while doing it all!

This is an issue I am very passionate about because it is a personal one.  After many years struggling to maintain a healthy weight, I am very thankful I have come to understand the impact that stress has upon weight gain.  Because I understand the impact that excess weight can have upon every area of ones life, I love to help people who have similar challenges.

The adrenal glands can only function at a “heightened” level for so long before they begin to wear down and reach a state that naturopaths often refer to as adrenal fatigue.  Once the adrenals are fatigued, many hormonal imbalances occur.  Adrenal imbalance causes a number of issues, including an expanded waistline.  The science behind it is quite interesting.  Normally when we begin to feel hungry, our blood sugar drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol.  Cortisol activates glucose, fats, and amino acids to keep our body fuelled with energy until we eat.  Cortisol maintains blood sugar levels, and insulin helps our cells absorb glucose.  When we have long-term stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood, and the extra glucose is stored as fat–mostly in the abdomen.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Scientists have discovered that fat cells actually have special receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies!  In addition, scientists have shown that belly fat is actually an active tissue, acting as an endocrine organ that responds to the stress response by welcoming more fat to be deposited!  This is an ongoing cycle until we take steps to correct this adrenal imbalance.  How do we do that?

  1. Sleep: Getting adequate sleep is so foundational. Many women struggling with weight gain caused by adrenal fatigue are waking up at 5am to push themselves through an intense workout before work; however, if their goal is primarily to loose weight, their time may be better spent in bed.  YES I did just say that! Light exercise is great to relieve stress but anything too intense causes cortisol levels to become elevated.
  2. Be intentional about the foods that you eat: Foods high in nutritional value are those the body needs most. Those suffering from adrenal fatigue crave sugar and carbohydrates but those foods just worsen the vicious cycle of hormonal imbalance.  Focus on eating high quality protein and vegetables.
  3. Breathe: Seriously take time just to sit and breathe.  The next time you have to wait in line or you are sitting at your child’s swimming practice, put down the smartphone and breathe.
  4. Get tested: Salivary hormone tests can be done by your naturopathic doctor to measure cortisol levels throughout the day. There are different stages of adrenal fatigue and knowing which stage you are in is helpful in knowing how to start treatment.
  5. Supplement: There are several botanicals and vitamins that help support the adrenal glands. Different ones are helpful for different people and so it is best to talk to a naturopathic doctor about which ones are right for you!