How Stress Leads to Fat


Stress is unhealthy.

Albeit cliché, this unadulterated statement is true.

Stress also contributes to the storage of fat in the body.

When stressed, your body transforms.  It releases large amounts of adrenaline, cortisol, and other related hormones that cascade throughout your entire body to get you ready for a fight or flight response.[1]  These stress hormones can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health. The damaging effects of stress hormones are probably worse than you think.

The Biochemistry of Fat Gain

When prolonged and unchecked, stress hormones can weaken your immune system; place you at greater risk to infection; amplify your risk to heart disease; increase your risk to cancer; and can even redistribute the fat in your body.[2] It is known that the consistent activation of cortisol is linked with increased abdominal fat.

How does stress become fat?

The process involves the way the stress-related hormonal processes trigger fat storage. Stress hormones release fat cells (and glucose) into your bloodstream to give your muscles that extra energy it needs to prepare you for that fight or flight response.[3] Unless this extra fuel is burned, it can redistribute and store throughout your body as visceral fat deposits (the beer bellies and love handles we all dread).[4]  What’s scary about visceral fat is that it doesn’t act like normal fat.  Visceral fat actively secretes hormones that affect your metabolism and the way your body burns calories.[5]  Further, the metabolic changes visceral fat causes (namely high blood pressure and high blood-sugar levels) increase your risk for diabetes and heart disease.[6]  Visceral fat is stored mostly in the abdominal area and is associated with higher levels of heart disease.

Chronically high levels of cortisol can also slow the body’s metabolism and increase the likeliness of emotional overeating. Cortisol can also thwart attempts to lose fat by increasing cravings for sweet foods. Studies have also shown that higher stress levels in general are associated with a preference for fatty foods.

Not all stress is bad. In fact, small doses of stress can be good.  A moderate dose of the stress hormones provides us with the energy-buzz necessary to beat a crucial work deadline; empowers to us survive a do or die situation; or even helps us to enjoy a roller coaster ride at Disneyland with our kids.[7]  Small amounts of cortisol can even improve memory function and immunity. The problems arise when higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream persist–and become chronic.

Chronic Stress and Cortisol

Chronic stress is more dangerous. Instead of “pumping you up,” a prolonged exposure to stress will exhaust your body.[10]  And, when higher doses of stress hormones continuously bombard your system day after day your immune system will measurably weaken.[11]  With a compromised immune system your body is less able to resist infection and more likely to develop cancer.[12]

This is why it is so incredibly important to take time to de-stress.  Our bodies are nearly always under some state of stress, whether pleasant or unpleasant, mild or severe.[13]  As an analogy, stress is like a violin string:  Too loose, and the sound is dull.  Too tight, and the sound is shrill or the string may even snap.[14]  The key is to find that perfectly harmonious “sweet-spot”-the state where your stress hormones are optimally balanced to help you live a happy and healthy life.

To keep levels of visceral fat in check, it is necessary to reduce the amount of cortisol in the bloodstream. This means that once cortisol levels rise, or once the fight-or-flight response is activated, that they must eventually lessen.

Relaxation is the key.

Take time for yourself, and make up your mind to consciously control your stress.

[1] See Huffman, Psychology in Action, 7th Ed., (2004)

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.; TIME Health and Family, at,8599,1915237,00.html (last visited Nov. 2012)

[5] See TIME Health and Family, at,8599,1915237,00.html (last visited Nov. 2012).
[6] See id.

[7] See NBC News Website, at (last visited Nov. 2012).

[8] See Stanford School of Medicine Website, at (last visited Nov. 2012).

[9] See NBC News Website, at (last visited Nov. 2012).

[10] See Huffman, Psychology in Action, 7th Ed., (2004).

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] See Huffman, Psychology in Action, 7th Ed., (2004).

[14] See NBC News Website, at (last visited Nov. 2012).

[15] See id.

This post was published previously in 2012. 

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