The Connection between Stress, Cortisol, and Weight Gain
By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
February 20, 2019
- When people are stressed, we can accumulate too much cortisol.
- Cortisol is a "Goldilocks" hormone, meaning we want to have the right amount, not too much or too little.
- Eating certain foods, like protein and real fats, can help us manage cortisol and other side-effects of stress.
When I think about the stress-cortisol-nutrition connection, I can’t help but think about a client I met with about a year ago. This client’s primary nutrition goals were to put an end to her cravings, and to reduce the belly fat gain that had been creeping up on her.
As we delved into her story, we discovered that she was a breastfeeding mom, a business owner, exercised at high intensity 6-7 days per week (and sometimes several times per day), and was sleeping only 3-5 hours per night. Whew, talk about high stress! She was also eating out and reaching for convenience foods more often than she had in the past. We discussed the toll these accumulated stressors were taking on her body, and how high levels of the stress hormone cortisol were causing her to gain weight, specifically in her midsection. I could see a dawning of realization on her face, so we sat down and created a plan to help her start reducing her daily cortisol level, starting with a balanced nutrition plan.
The Scientific Connection Between Stress and Cortisol
Humans have encountered stressors as far back as our primitive days. The main stressors of our ancestors usually involved short bursts of fighting, hunting for their next meal, or fleeing from the jaws of a hungry lion. Fast forward to today, our “lions” now come in many different, sometimes unrecognized, forms:
- “Needing” a whole pot of coffee or a 16-oz energy drink to accomplish the day’s to-do list
- Skipping breakfast (or any meal for that matter!)
- Constant email and text notifications from our cell phones. In fact, a study published in 2015 identified SIX different ways that smartphones produced a stress response in the participants, including anxiety of missing out on valuable information, and the pressure of responding in real-time!1
- Financial concerns
- Our kids’ (or our own) packed activity schedules
- Being a caregiver for a loved one
- Long commutes or rush-hour traffic
- Giving a presentation or sales pitch at work
- An alarm clock that goes off after only 5 hours of sleep
- The ever-looming question of “What’s for dinner?”
Can you relate to any of these? The problem is, our bodies don’t know the difference between a life-or-death chase with lion and a crabby boss. Our bodies still respond the same way: releasing our main stress hormone, cortisol, to help us deal with the situation at hand.
Cortisol is an example of a “Goldilocks” hormone: we don’t want too much cortisol or too little cortisol, we want it just right.
Cortisol is actually beneficial for us in the short-term; it gives us a burst of strength, energy, focus, and even temporarily boosts our immune system. However, our daily fast-paced lives and constantly facing our “lions” means that cortisol is being released all day long, day after day.
Over time, too much cortisol throws our blood sugar level out of whack, interrupts our sleep (ever had that “tired but wired” feeling?!), leads to feelings of anxiety and depression, and affects wound healing.
Chronically high stress levels can even cause us to age quicker. A 2004 study in healthy premenopausal women showed that those women with the highest perceived stress levels had shorter telomeres (DNA protein complexes) compared to low-stress women – in all this averages the equivalent of at least 10 years of additional aging.2
A chronically high level of cortisol also puts extra fat on our bellies.
Why? One reason is that we have more cortisol receptors in our abdominal adipose tissue than in other areas of fat storage! In other words, our bellies have four times more “doorways” for cortisol to act on our fat cells.
Cortisol also increases our blood sugar level temporarily, giving us quick energy to “fight-or-flight” the stressor at hand. Unfortunately, this rise is quickly followed by a blood sugar drop, which leaves us feeling tired, hangry (hungry and angry), craving sugar, and MORE STRESSED! Once in a low blood sugar state, cookies and donuts in the breakroom look way more appealing than the steak, green beans, and butter you brought for lunch. Can you see the vicious cycle? The question then becomes: what choices can I make with my food to avoid the stress-cortisol trap and keep my belly trim?
Busting Stress with a Nutrition-First Diet
While there are certainly unforeseen event and stressors that we have no control over, we do have choices when it comes to what we put in our mouths each day. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do with your nutrition to reduce high cortisol levels.
First and foremost, keeping your blood sugar level balanced and steady throughout the day keeps cortisol levels in check. To do this, we teach our clients to eat a mix of protein, real-food carbs, and healthy fats several times per day. Most of our client need to eat this combination every 3-4 hours. This prevents our blood sugar from going too high or too low, which in turn prevents a stress response.
Eat This, Not That To Reduce Cortisol:
- Eat enough protein, usually 4-6oz per meal and 2-3oz per snack. Quality proteins, like meats, eggs, fish/seafood, and dairy, break down into amino acids. These amino acids are then used to make our feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
- Choose real fats like butter, coconut oil, avocado oil, avocadoes, dry roasted nuts/seeds, heavy cream, cream cheese, and olives. Our brains are 60-70% fat, so real fats help us think better and have good moods.
- Remove troublemakers like sugar, refined oils, alcohol, caffeine, and potential food sensitivities from your diet. The most common foods we see clients are sensitives to be gluten and dairy.
- Sleep 8-9 hours per night. Cortisol should be at its lowest around midnight, and sleep is our time to rest, relax, and repair. There are many nutritional solutions to sleep issues, but eating a snack before bed is the first line of defense. This helps keep blood sugars stable through the night and keeps cortisol at bay.
- Magnesium is my favorite stress-busting mineral! When you think magnesium, think relaxation: magnesium helps our bodies control blood sugar, reduce blood pressure, reduce anxiety, relax our muscles, promote sleep, and much more. 400-600mg of our Magnesium Glycinate or Mixed Magnesium products does just the trick for many of our clients.
With these strategies in mind, you are well on your way to warding off the stress and cortisol response before it even begins. Listen in to a Dishing Up Nutrition podcast episode, The Cortisol Connection to Weight Gain to learn even more strategies. If you’re a bit lost about what to eat, consider a phone or in-person nutritional counseling meeting with one of our knowledgeable dietitians and nutritionists to help you create a game plan and put it into action.