Can stress cause weight gain? The short answer is "yes." This is one of the many topics covered in the User's Guide to Weight-Loss Supplements (Basic Health Publications User's Guide paperback) and the discussion there explores one of the reasons that weight loss programs often fail. In a 1986 Dutch study, men who experienced many life events in a short period of time — one definition of stress — gained weight. This study also showed the importance of identifying and treating the problem (stress) rather than the symptom (weight gain). In these men the excessive weight had disappeared in almost all subgroups a year later. The exception was the subgroup that had tried to lose weight by dieting. The men who had dieted had gained yet more weight.

  • Stress is a common human experience. It is more than just being uptight or having a bad day. It is a physiological imbalance that results in biochemical damage at a cellular level. Stress occurs when the body is expending energy faster than it can be regenerated. The body's stress axis is a system for handling emergencies. The body's stress system was originally created to help us deal with life threatening situations such as the threat of a saber tooth tiger, a forest fire, an earthquake or an avalanche. This biological response was designed to be short-lived, a "fight or flight" response. Or, at least, that is what it should be. The fact that stress can be chronic is the root of the problem in modern life.
  • Because the stress response burns nutrients and reserves at a no-holds-barred pace, it was never designed for long-term implementation. Moreover, because it was developed to deal with physical threats, although it might be exhausting, the fight-or-flight response was meant to release physical tension. But what happens when the threat is not physical and the response cannot lead to a physical release? What happens when we are faced not with a tiger, but with mortgage payments, birthdays, deadlines for book editors, crazy drivers and the like? Although modern civilization has reshaped our lives, our primitive response to stress has remained unchanged.
  • Our individual capacities to adapt and deal with stress are different. Much stress is generated through an emotional response that is expressed — or, worse yet, repressed. Aggression, impatience, anger, anxiety and fear are all emotions that kindle the body's stress response. Following a fast food diet, drinking alcohol, smoking, taking drugs, etc., further contribute to our physiological and biochemical strain. Stress only truly becomes harmful when we can no longer control our responses to it. Not surprisingly, an unhealthy stress response is often tied to emotional triggers. Both can play large roles in weight gain.

Cortisol, the Enemy
Stress, a mental term, is mirrored in the body by the release of the hormone cortisol (one of the glucocorticoids). Traditional allopathic medicine has not paid much attention to cortisol's overall effects on the body because it is very hard to measure accurately and the timing of release often is more important than the levels found in, say, the blood. Only recently has a popular market book appeared which has made the issue of stress its core analysis for why individuals gain weight in their middle years.

One of the corticosteroid hormones produced primarily in the adrenal glands and involved in responses to stress, daily metabolic cycles and numerous other functions.

Our ability to handle physical and mental stress declines as we age. In fact, much of what we think of as a decline in the ability to handle stress seems to be an aspect of aging itself. Glucocorticoid levels typically increase and/or become markedly dysregulated as humans age. They remain chronically elevated and/or dysregulated in comparison with the levels found in young adults. According to various studies, a significant increase of serum cortisol levels during evening and night-time is found in elderly subjects when compared to young controls. Similarly, the rhythm of cortisol release is significantly affected by age.

Impaired glucose uptake and utilization by the lean tissues—arguably the very core of insulin one of the primary metabolic effects of cortisol. Therefore, it is not difficult to grasp the connection between elevated or dysregulated cortisol levels and Syndrome X. The result is what is sometimes called "central obesity" or the "apple-shaped" in which most of the weight is carried around the midsection.

  • Emotional eating often is related to stress. Keep in mind that stress is a subjective response. What is stressful for one person may be exhilarating to another. Emotional responses are usually tied to an individual's past experiences, and this is one reason that "triggers" or activating situations are so important. As with stressful situations, these triggers need to be identified and either avoided or worked through.
  • Even though stress may trigger eating for some, it should be recalled that there is more to the story than the consumption of excessive number of calories. Elevated cortisol not only causes weight to be deposited around the midsection, but also leads the body to cannibalize lean muscle tissue, the very tissue that burns the most calories. Moreover, although stress can induce hunger as an after effect, stress-induced weight gain is not necessarily linked to overeating. This means that the nearly fifty million Americans who suffer from stress-related weight gain will not necessarily benefit from diets based on restricting calories. It also means that individuals in whom stress is the chief cause of weight gain should strongly consider avoiding diet supplements that are stimulants.
  • As unwelcome as this news might be, any permanent solution to stress-related weight gain must include managing the stress. This means either avoiding the causes or finding ways of channeling the effects. Meditation, yoga and increased physical activity are all ways of dealing more successfully with stress. Supplements, too, may help as long as they are not used as means of avoiding necessary changes.

Supplements for Stress Weight Gain

  • Calcium and magnesium combination: 250–500 mg of each with supper; or try the newly available magnesium threonate supplement according to directions to improve sleep and memory
  • Inositol: 100–500 milligrams at bedtime
  • Pantothenic acid: 200–2,000 milligrams daily
  • Chrysin: 500–3,000 milligrams daily in divided doses with meals
  • Kava kava: 60–75 milligrams kavalactones two or three times daily; avoid kava if you consume alcohol or take any prescription medicines
  • Taurine: 500 milligrams twice daily between meals
  • Theanine: 100–200 milligrams twice daily between meals
  • Extracts of valerian root, hops, skullcap, passionflower, linden and chamomile, singly or in combination (as directed)
  • Chamomile tea
  • Bupleurum and dragon bone formula, other Chinese herbal formulas
Supplements for Emotional Eating
  • 5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): 50–300 milligrams daily in divided doses between meals
  • St. John’s wort: 300–900 milligrams daily of a 0.3 percent hypericin extract in divided doses with meals
  • Vitamin B6 (25–50 milligrams daily) may improve the effects

Diet and Exercise
Answers to stress and mood issues may involve supplements, but the fundamentals always need to include diet and exercise. If you find that your mood is often out of kilter and stress has you wound up, first look to your diet and lifestyle. Both eating right and exercising can go a long way in evening out mood swings and unwinding stress.

For instance, most of us realize from our own experience that getting some exercise and exposure to sunlight before lunchtime helps us to feel better. One reason goes back to cortisol and melatonin — sunlight and activity early in the day helps to reset our body’s basic rhythm, its circadian settings, so that cortisol is higher early in the day and lower in the late afternoon and evenings while the reverse is true of melatonin. Scientific studies have shown that those who get regular exercise (such as taking a twenty minute walk three times per week) suffer less from obesity, heart disease, some forms of cancer and psychological disturbances.

Two items that are commonly found in the American diet can undermine one’s outlook on life. These are caffeine and alcohol. An intake of roughly 700 milligrams or more caffeine per day (about five cups of coffee) is often associated with depression and mood swings. Caffeine causes short-term increases in blood sugar levels that can be followed by dramatic downward fluctuations. Consuming caffeine, in other words, is yet another path to the sugar “roller coaster” of energy ups and downs. Cutting out caffeine and refined sugars for as little as one week has been shown clinically to improve mood in many individuals complaining of depression. The consumption of alcohol before bedtime can have similarly distorting effects upon mood. This is because alcohol consumption interferes with the body’s natural production of melatonin and thereby disturbs the nature and restfulness of the night’s sleep.

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