Chronic stress is an underappreciated, yet powerful driver of pathologic weight gain.
Chronic stress is a potent driver of ‘toxic’ fat accumulation, and the stress hormone cortisol is the biochemical culprit. When we experience persistent, daily stress over months to years, cortisol levels rise abnormally high and remain chronically elevated. This leads to weight gain, particularly in the belly, via four separate ways.
1. The stress hormone cortisol increases our desire and appetite for “comfort” foods that are notoriously fattening – namely foods high in sugar, refined carbs, and fat like doughnuts, pastries, cookies, etc.
2. Chronic stress and high cortisol levels interfere with sleep. Inadequate sleep is a quadruple threat for fat gain as it 1) increases levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin 2) decreases levels of the appetite-quieting hormone leptin 3) slows metabolism and 4) lowers energy and motivation to exercise.
3. High cortisol levels lead to high insulin levels. Elevated insulin levels promote weight gain in two ways. First, insulin is your “fat hormone”— the higher its levels in your body the easier it is to deposit fat (especially in the belly) and the more difficult it is to burn fat. In fact, high blood insulin levels totally shut your ability to burn fat. Second, high insulin levels block the action of the all-powerful hunger-quieting hormone leptin at the level of the brain. If your brain cannot receive leptin’s signals, your appetite remains activated no matter how much you eat.
4. Cortisol directs the body to deposit fat within the belly. Belly fat, also known as visceral fat, is now widely recognized as the type of fat that leads to cardiometabolic diseases, namely heart attacks, strokes, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, dementia, and accelerated aging. To add further insult to injury, belly fat also drives insulin resistance, which means even higher insulin levels and even more belly fat accumulation. Together, cortisol and insulin conspire to turn your belly fat cells into fat magnets!
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