Today we are taking a look at cortisol, the major stress hormone in the body, and how it can impact your shape change or weight loss goals. If you need some clarification around what shape change is referring to as part of this article, think of it as your ability to lose inches or see definite changes in your body composition through progress pictures.
Without a doubt, stressful situations can negatively impact your ability to lose weight or change your shape. That’s not to say that all stress is bad, and in fact, some stress is necessary as part of the human condition. Yes, you read it right! Some degree of stress is necessary for our survival as humans.
When we sense an oncoming threat, whether that is a car speeding towards us or having a conversation with a confrontational person, our brain starts to process the threats by kicking off the stress response. Stress can also be caused by internal processes, such as your body’s interpretation of under-eating and overexercising.
While your body is designed to be able to handle stressors in the short-term, it is not well-designed to handle longer-term stressors. Through our Metabolic Optimization coaching program, we hope to arm you with helpful tools that teach you how to properly manage stress and cortisol because your ability to lose weight or change your shape is highly dependent on how stressed you are.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a client how their stress level has been, only to receive the response: “I’m not that stressed. I mean, yes, I get stressed, but I’m doing ok.” Then we start to dive into the events of the week, including obstacles or challenges that have come up, and the client suddenly responds, “ Woah – I’m actually dealing with a lot of stressful things right now, aren’t I?”
When shape change or weight loss is your goal, as coaches we often encourage our clients to focus on stress management as their primary programming goal. For some managing stress is actually more difficult than making “healthy” food choices or getting in their workout.
Let’s take a peek at how stress impacts your food choices, calorie intake, or overrides the way your body utilizes the calories you are taking in.
- Studies have shown that low-calorie diets can increase cortisol: This study following “healthy women” over the course of 3 weeks showed an increase in cortisol after restricting their calorie consumption as part of a specific diet for 3 weeks. An increase in psychological stress was also noted as the result of trying to follow the diet plan. Things like monitoring one’s daily caloric intake can be perceived as a hassle, severe caloric restriction can impact the perceived intensity and frequency of physical hunger, and physical hunger over time can impact mood. As cortisol levels increase for any of these reasons, weight gain can result.
- Excess cortisol impacts fat storage no matter the reason for your cortisol surges: When you have high levels of glucose circulating in your bloodstream, and this glucose isn’t required for energy, glucose will be converted into, and then stored as, fat. The more fat you store, the more rapidly you can begin to gain weight. When clients state that they aren’t eating enough to make sense of their inability to lose weight, or even note weight gain, it is important to consider their level of stress as part of this equation.
- Higher cortisol is linked to emotional eating: Comfort eating is often used as a way to cope with stress. Around 70% of the population reports turning to food as a way to cope with stress in the absence of true physical hunger. At Metabolic Living, we encourage you to think of metabolism as one big stress barometer. As stress rises, your metabolism compensates by throwing off your SHMEC – sleep, hunger, mood, energy, and cravings. Before you know it, you’ve put on 5 or 10 pounds in a short time due to a rise in calories.
I want to stress that while calories are frequently discussed above, we don’t always feel it is necessary to count calories or follow prescribed macros to see weight loss occur. We use your SHMEC as the primary indicator of your metabolic function. When SHMEC is in check, and your stress is properly managed, following your body’s biofeedback may be all you need to know when to eat, what to eat, and how often to eat.
If you are finding your level of stress to be out of balance, throwing your SHMEC out of check, take some time to focus on napping, breathing, walking, pampering, or anything else that brings you a bit of peace and calm. You have my permission to put exercise and nutrition on hold for a week and instead prioritize stress management. Once you feel more relaxed internally, layer in some healthy meals and structured exercise and notice if you see some movement with your weight loss or shape change goals.
Drop us a comment and let us know what you’ve found to be most helpful from this article! Or if you feel you need more personalized accountability and support with any of your wellness goals, including your ability to properly manage stress, please check out our Metabolic Optimization coaching program. We’d love to work with you!