Perhaps you’ve noticed that no matter how hard you try, the weight around your midsection just doesn’t seem to budge. You’ve tried it all: Keto, Paleo, lectin avoidance, juice cleanses, intermittent fasting—and yes, you’re exercising enough that you should be seeing results by now. But while other parts of your body seem to respond, your belly does not.
When you go in for a doctor’s appointment, they may tell you that “everything is normal,” even though you don’t feel like yourself.
You’re not alone.
In fact, many people—especially women—confront this same plateau. Some are unable to push through and after time, give up. While others continue to try every fad diet and fitness regimen that comes their way, though it never proves to be enough.
The reason? There’s a deeper factor standing in the way—and it’s rooted in the adrenal glands.
The Connection Between Stress and Weight Gain
If you read my recent blog Controlling Cortisol: The Self Care Your Body Deserves then you already know about cortisol and stress.
If you haven’t read it, here are the cliff notes: cortisol is the number one stress hormone in our bodies and when it’s out of balance, it sends red SOS flares to your other systems (think: thyroid, blood sugar, digestion, immune, mood, and sleep) to let them know there’s something wrong, and in the process, throws everything out of balance.
The biggest takeaway is that when you are stressed (and we all are), cortisol shifts too high or too low, and that disrupts signals throughout your body and causes various health issues.
So how does this impact your ability to maintain a healthy weight or lose belly fat?
Stress Triggers Emotional Eating
For most people, “emotional eating” is a common stress management tool. While it doesn’t actually help to alleviate the stress, it does take your attention away from the issues at hand—momentarily, of course.
Don’t just chalk it up to a lack of self-control, however. Studies have actually shown that hunger is triggered in high-stress situations to make up for the calories the body thinks we’ve used while handling stressful situations. It’s our bodies’ way of taking care of us.
Plus, when we are stressed, our digestion, as well as hunger and fullness hormones, are all out of balance, making it hard to know when we’ve eaten enough. Stress causes leaky gut, which decreases the absorption of nutrients while increasing reactions to foods.
Patients who are suffering from high amounts of stress often tell me that they constantly feel hungry, even right after eating.
The more we eat, without digesting well, we are likely to overfeed the bacteria in our intestines. When they overgrow, bacteria cause bloating (and gas), and ends up releasing toxic substances that travel within our bodies where they further stress and confuse our metabolism.
It’s also not just about how much we eat. Think about WHAT we eat when we’re stressed. I can tell you it’s likely not carrot sticks and celery.
Though that would satisfy the desire for crunch. Pass the chips, anyone?
Blame Your Cravings On Your Cortisol Levels
Instead, it’s typically sweet, fatty—and plain old bad for us. This is caused by the drop in blood sugar as a result of increased insulin that is released when cortisol levels are high.
Overgrowing bacteria (or yeast) makes this worse by sending signals to our brain making us want to eat what will feed them. Plus, imbalanced cortisol causes fatigue and mood fluctuations that can make us want to eat to feel better, even temporarily.
This is precisely the meaning behind “comfort foods.” When we need something to help us feel better, we reach for the sugary, high-carb, creamy, and rich foods such as cookies, ice cream or a big bowl of pasta.
Then, because our cells can only respond to so much insulin at once, any extra carbs that don’t make it into our cells to be used as energy are redirected to be stored… as cholesterol, in our liver (something called fatty liver), or around our waist.
And because those comfort foods often contain foods that trigger an immune response, such as gluten and dairy, inflammation increases, and that too, adds to the vicious cycle of weight gain. In fact, fat cells themselves increase inflammation, and inflammation triggers yet more stress and cortisol.
Stress Impacts How You Store Fat
Cortisol impedes losing belly weight because it literally stores it there intentionally. When our stress hormones are out of balance for prolonged periods of time, it triggers visceral fat to be stored for self-preservation. Visceral fat surrounds your organs, often giving the belly a very round appearance. This is where the terms “beer belly” or “muffin top” come into play.
While I understand that people don’t enjoy the unwanted belly fat, it’s not the look of it that should concern you.
Visceral belly fat has been linked to:
- Heart Disease (most commonly in women)
- Type 2 Diabetes
- High Blood Pressure
- Alzheimer’s Disease
For women, there is an additional “stress” or shift that occurs after menopause. When the menstrual cycle ends, insulin function decreases, causing blood sugar levels to go higher much easier. Again, when blood sugar levels are high, the body turns that “sugar” into fat, around your waist.
So even when you eat the same amount of carbs you could eat in the past without weight gain, after menopause, it is a totally different story.
Add to this that for many women thyroid function is even slightly decreased due to faulty signals from cortisol. Stress and cortisol imbalances also make autoimmunity, such as Hashimoto’s (which damages the thyroid), more likely. When thyroid function is lower, weight gain is more likely.
And I’m sorry to say, it’s not just women who experience all this. Men too, when under years of stress, are susceptible to cortisol imbalances and low testosterone, both of which disrupt insulin and thyroid, and make autoimmunity and weight gain more likely.
It’s not fair! Believe me, I agree.
I wish our bodies would have a different response when we are stressed. And yet, it is important to remember that all of these responses to stress are actually in an attempt to protect us from it. There is simply only so much our bodies can do when cortisol is too high or too low, and when we eat more carbs than our cells can handle.
The onus is on us. Once we put health at the top of our priority list, we realize that it is ON US to outsmart stress. If we leave it up to stress, the imbalances created by stress will likely lead us down a predictable path of weight gain (for some, too much weight loss) and other health issues.
The Importance of Living a Stress-Free Life
Whether your reasons for reducing stress are to appear more physically fit or to improve one of the other cortisol-related conditions, there are ways to do so… and without medications.
Balance Your Cortisol Levels By:
- Better preparing yourself for the day and week ahead.
- Get more sleep.
- Take time to be still and meditate.
- Move your body for at least 10-15 minutes a day.
- Eat smaller meals at consistent intervals through the day (and not overnight).
- Include some protein (often 8-12 grams is enough) every time you eat.
- Laugh more—honestly, try it!
- Learn about the natural herbs and supplements that cortisol responds to.
- Surround yourself with positive people.
- Limit your exposure to things (and people) that induce stress.
- Choose a lifestyle rooted in healthy nutrition and realistic exercise—not one that causes you to try every new diet fad every few weeks.
I get it. Even a list of things to improve your health can start to trigger a stress response, right?
That’s precisely why I feel it is so important to include a dose of self-acceptance and self-love in the plan. Be patient with yourself. Now that you are aware of the pattern, you can do something about it. What I find is that implementing little by little over time makes a HUGE difference.
The patients who experience the most change in the shortest amount of time do the following:
- Check cortisol levels in urine or saliva four different times of day (morning, mid-day, evening and bedtime).
- Check adrenaline and neurotransmitter levels so we know it is out of balance and can work on getting them back in line using nutrients and herbs.
- Find out which foods are triggering your immune system and causing inflammation.
- Make sure to get blood work to check on your thyroid, blood sugar, insulin function, and inflammation.
- Find out whether your gut bacteria are out of balance, and then get them back on track.
- Get help to implement changes and to know exactly which supplements are best for your situation.
You see… when cortisol is too high, we use herbs known to decrease cortisol production like banaba leaf, magnolia root, ashwagandha, and/or Ziziphus. When cortisol is too low, we use a completely different set of herbs, such as Rhodiola, green tea, holy basil, and Eleutherococcus.
So this is solvable.
Don’t give up on you or your body. Instead, get the information you need in order to be successful.
To find out more how I help patients one-on-one, read about my Adrenal Wellness Program. I can work with you locally or virtually and will guide you through the exact steps it takes to recover from stress to feel your best.
To get started on your own, I recommend beginning with my 21-day Stress Remedy Program. In this program, I guide you to change your way of eating while also implementing self-care strategies, step by step. It is NOT intended for temporary weight loss. Instead, it is focused on helping you to make changes that can become part of your life. You can choose to follow the program with my protein shake and leaky gut healing products, or on your own. It is up to you.