Stress Hormones and Obesity
Emotional stress is a chronic form of the fight or flight response to an external stimuli. Much like when the early man would respond to the vision of a sabre tooth tiger, stressful emotions also initiate the physiological response in a less intense but cumlative fasion. Initially the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is engaged which increases heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and reduces digestive functions. After the initial nervous response, the endocrine system secretes hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
A correlation between hypercortisol with obesity and overeating has been found. Cushings syndrome is the physiological condition describing various medical problems as a result of very high levels of cortisol. Cushings syndrome sign include a change of the body shape including obesity, belly fat and round “moon” face. Changes in cortisol not only promote weight gain but also promote adipose tissue deposits into the abdomen which is the most dangerous known as “toxic fat” which has been correlated with cardiovascular disease.
In addition to being a stress hormone, cortisol is the hormone that is part of the circadian rhythm along with melatonin. During the day, cortisol is peaking for waking time, as the evening approaches and the sun goes down, the cortisol levels decrease as melatonin increases. At dawn, the sun begins to rise as well as the cortisol levels and melatonin levels decrease.
One strategy to deal with stress eating is to ensure one gets at least eight hours of sleep each night. Since cortisol is light sensitive, one should also make certain that during sleep cycle, all light in bedroom should be extinguished including night-lights and digital clocks. During the wake cycle, make sure one gets natural sunlight exposure. For those individuals on alternate working shifts, one should make certain of exposure to light during waking cycle and block out windows if day sleeping. Once you reduce the amount of waking cortisol, one will reduce cravings to satiate the brain during stress.
The efficacy of diet supplements that target cortisol / belly fat have not been proven. Several products have made claims to reduce stress hormones but they are lacking in scientific research backing claims.
The best strategy to combat stress induced eating or weight gain is of course to reduce the external stimuli that causes stress. First of all, identify the stressors in ones life. Secondly, take steps to reduce the stimuli. This stem may not be very practical since it may involve major life changes like occupation, family, or relationship status. If this is not an option, the next strategy is to manage how the body deals with stress. Cardiovascular exercise is one of the best options to stress management. Not only does exercise balance hormones but it is also a controlled stressor on the body which promotes adaptations to stressors. As one becomes physically fit, one can handle stress better physiologically. Another strategy is to engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which is the counterpart to the SNS. Some of the best ways to engage the PNS is relaxation modalities such as meditation, yoga, massage therapy, and hypnosis.
Since stress hormones have been correlated to overeating and cravings that lead to obesity, an active stress management program can lead to weight management. So, getting regular massage can help one lose weight.
Peeke PM, Chrousos GP. Hypercortisolism and Obesity. Ann NY Acad Sci 1995 Dec 29; 771:665-76.
Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, Matthews K, Castellazzo G, Brownell KD, Bell J, Ickovics JR. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosom Med. 2000 Sep-Oct; 62(5):623-32.