I’ll never forget the first time Deirdre walked into my office. She had one cell phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder while she texted with one hand on a second one, and held a stack of papers in her other hand. If you were to look up “stressed” in the dictionary, you would have seen this image of Deirdre.
She had come to see me because over the last year, even though she’d been eating extremely well and working out daily, she’d gained weight.
“How is it that I’m healthier than ever and heavier than ever?” she asked me.
It actually didn’t take long to solve the puzzle, because the truth was that Deirdre wasn’t healthier than ever. She may have been eating better and exercising more, but something else really important had changed over the course of this year: she’d accepted a big promotion at work, and her stress levels had skyrocketed, leading her to develop adrenal fatigue.
Did you know there’s a connection between how well your adrenal glands are functioning and gaining weight? In this article, I will explore:
- How stress causes unwanted weight gain
- Belly fat, an important symptom of adrenal fatigue
- The key ingredient for adrenal balance: change your diet!
- Balancing your life to promote adrenal health
One of the most frequent and important questions my patients often have is “I haven’t changed my eating or exercise habits, but I’m gaining weight. Why?”
This is such a frustrating dilemma, because they’re doing everything “right” but seeing their weight steadily creep up.
The first thing I ask about when I hear this question is stress. Believe it or not, stress itself can cause your body to hold on to and store calories as fat.
In our hectic lives, stress is nearly unavoidable. Our lives are busier than ever before, and multitasking is both admired and considered the norm. Work challenges, relationship turmoil, caring for ill children or parents, and a myriad of other responsibilities keep us moving from morning to night without a break.
Sometimes this leads to poor food choices – whether due to time constraints or a need for “comfort foods.” While this quick fix may well relieve tension in the moment, it certainly doesn’t help you maintain a healthy weight. But it’s by far not the only reason for weight gain: stress has actual physical effects that factor in as well.
When your stress levels are high, especially over extended periods of time, many physiological changes occur in your body. And these changes can predispose you to gain more unwanted pounds than in periods of low stress – often without changing your diet or eating habits!
These dramatic changes stem from hormones produced by our adrenal glands. These amazing glands manage many important bodily functions and are crucial in helping us deal with the stress response. When the adrenals aren’t balanced, your fight-or-flight response kicks in, and your body prepares for the worst case scenario by storing calories to see you through the crisis. These stored calories show up as that extra fat you see. But it doesn’t have to be permanent. When your adrenals are properly supported and healthy function is regained, energy comes back, stamina returns, cravings for carbs and sugar disappear, and best of all – the unwanted pounds disappear with little extra effort.
If you’re curious about adrenal fatigue and weight gain, take a more in-depth look with me. I’ll show you how to overcome adrenal fatigue and weight gain, and what you need to do to drop those extra pounds and feel more like your old self.
How Stress Causes Unwanted Weight Gain
As a culture, we most often associate “being stressed” with emotions. Few people understand the dramatic effect stress has on the body physically. The most frustrating physical effect is the storage of excess calories, which most often shows up as fat in the abdominal area and thighs.
Our ancient evolution has everything to do with why this happens. Thousands of years ago, if our ancestors were being chased by a tiger, their adrenals quickly went into fight-or-flight mode, releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones not only give us those “superhuman” powers you may have heard of but also have the ability to quickly mobilize carbohydrates and fats to give us instant energy. In our ancestors’ time, when the threat was over, their bodies relaxed and their instincts kicked in, causing them to refuel with carbohydrate dense foods that are most often stored as fat.
Our World is Full of High Levels of Stress
Life is much different than it was during our ancestor’s time all those years ago. The stress we face today isn’t always an immediate threat to survival. The unfortunate part is our bodies can’t really tell the difference, so the same process happens whether the threat is physical or psychological.
We don’t need that “fight or flight” response, and we certainly don’t need those extra calories our body is so efficiently storing.
Another significant change is that many of us are living in a constant state of stress, leaving cortisol levels elevated for extended periods of time. One of the impacts of this is that when high levels of cortisol are streaming through the blood, we are much less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that lets the brain know we are full. Therefore, there may be a tendency to eat more than usual, as it feels like a need for survival.
Belly Fat, An Important Symptom of Adrenal Fatigue
So many women struggle with the “spare tire” of additional fat that shows up around their waist. Women with adrenal dysfunction are quite likely to develop this additional body fat around their middle, for a variety of reasons.
When your body is functioning properly, if you go a long time without eating your blood sugar drops, and your brain sends chemical messages to the adrenals to release cortisol.
This cortisol mobilizes glucose, amino acids and fat to prevent the blood sugar from dropping too low, and keeps the body and brain fueled with the energy it requires when food is not available. Cortisol’s job is to maintain stable levels of glucose in the blood; insulin assists in getting the glucose into the cells.
But chronic stress is a different story. After months, or maybe even years, of long term stress, cortisol and insulin remain high in the blood and the extra glucose gets stored as that unwanted fat, mostly in the abdomen and thighs. Research is now showing us that fat cells have special receptors for cortisol, but most importantly these receptors are much more prevalent on the fat cells in the abdominal area.
Even worse, the fat around your belly doesn’t just sit there. Recent research shows that it actually works like an endocrine organ that reacts to the stress response, which in turn creates even more abdominal fat and on and on it goes. The cycle will continue unless you take action. The great news is, you can stop the cycle by taking a few steps to heal that adrenal imbalance.
How to Overcome Adrenal Fatigue and Weight Gain – Change Your Diet!
I mentioned earlier that a common sign of adrenal fatigue is gaining weight even when you’re eating a healthy diet. But no matter what your diet looked like before, there are a few specific things you can do to eat better for your adrenals – and these involve not only what you eat but when you eat.
I have many resources around eating well for adrenal health. Everything I’ve said before – both in my article eating for adrenal glands, and in my book, Is It Me or My Adrenals? applies here too. Here are a few brief suggestions to remember:
Eat Regular Meals and Two Snacks Per Day
Eat on a regular basis to convince your body that it is not starving and that it’s not in danger. Keeping your blood sugar stable prevents the release of large amounts of cortisol and, in the long run, decreases the burden on the adrenal glands. I recommend that you eat three balanced meals and two snacks per day. Make sure they are at intervals throughout the day that work with your bodies’ natural circadian rhythm.
Eating at the Right Times Does Matter
Cortisol has a natural rhythm that works well with your circadian rhythm. Typically, cortisol is highest in the morning, and decreases gradually as the day progresses; it is lowest at night so restful sleep can occur. Eating increases cortisol, so ideally you’ll eat your largest meal early in the day, giving your body the time it needs to process it for optimal well-being.
Have Your Favorite Foods Readily Available
It’s way too easy to reach for a cup of coffee or a cookie to keep you going in the afternoon. So many of my patients say they have sugary snacks and caffeine because they are so easy to grab and give them quick energy. But trust me, eating this way is not going to help you feel good – or help you meet your weight goals. Often, sugar or caffeine leads to an even bigger drop in energy as the blood sugar plummets after the initial spike. If energy is what you need, add foods high in nutrients that support the adrenals, such as:
- lean proteins
Tip: It’s important to consider adding a pharmaceutical grade multivitamin/mineral complex and adaptogenic herbs like the ones we offer in our store. Adrenal expert Shawn Talbott, PhD, writes, “When it comes to dietary supplementation for stress adaptation and cortisol control, the first line of defense appears in the form of a comprehensive multivitamin/mineral supplement…”
Balancing Your Life to Promote Adrenal Health
As I’ve said before, we live in a non-stop world. Women multitask all the time – we’re often proud of our abilities to accomplish so much in one day (remember that image of Deirdre?).
Cell phones, email, ipads and computers, texting, Facebook – information and communication comes at us constantly from so many sources! It can be difficult to step back and take a peaceful break from it all. But it’s essential that we learn to do just that.
Restoring balance to your adrenals means having balance in your life. It’s tough to have balance if you never slow down and take time for yourself. So many women think that being constantly on the move will help with weight loss, but it’s more complicated than that. If you’re tired, wired, and overweight, it’s likely you will need to lower your stress level and heal your adrenals to stop the vicious weight-gain cycle.
How Do I Start to Balance My Life?
Slowing down is an important step when it comes to balancing your adrenals, but there’s more to it than that. Here are some tips on how to start to heal your adrenals and balance your life.
I’ve heard so many patients say they have more energy at night, or that night time is their best time. They say they can’t get to sleep easily – or maybe that falling asleep is easy but they wake up in the middle of the night and are unable to get back to sleep. If this sounds like you, your circadian rhythm is likely backwards.
When cortisol is low in the morning and high at night, you will feel tired in the morning and wired and awake at night.
Some simple ways to change this pattern include:
- Eat your largest meal earlier in the day (and have a light dinner)
- Step away from screens (including computers) by 7 PM
- Try to be in bed by 10 PM, and aim to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep
- If you’re struggling, try our Sleep Support Formula to help naturally reset your sleep cycle
Be Mindful of Exercise
If you have a good exercise routine going already, and you feel good when you’re finished, keep at it! Otherwise, if you feel completely wiped out after exercise try decreasing the intensity. Also, try not to let your heart rate get above 90 beats per minute until the adrenal dysfunction is resolved.
If you are just starting to exercise, try starting with a 15 minute walk (preferably outside), increasing to 15 minutes two times per day. Exercise has been known to decrease stress, as long as it’s fun! But when your adrenals are already depleted, it’s not the time to overdo it!
Having fun and being playful are essential to happiness and well-being. But as adults, we seldom make time to play – or even understand what playing means for us. Maybe your idea of fun is dancing, or roller skating, or bouncing on a trampoline. Perhaps it’s simply sitting around a fire, laughing with friends. There are so many options, but we’ve often forgotten how good it feels to relax and play. If you need a reminder, consider this your prescription…PLAY!
Breathing is crucial for slowing your heart rate and calming your entire body, and it doesn’t take much time or effort to breathe deeply. Just three or four deep breaths can go a long way, and you can do it anywhere. Find time to take those deep breaths throughout the day – especially when you feel yourself getting stressed. You’re always breathing, just try to be a little more deliberate about it. Try to recognize those times when your body needs a break. Get some fresh air, have a relaxing cup of tea, put your feet up and relax – even if only for a minute or two. It will do wonders.
Allow Your Body to Release the Stress and Relax
I speak to women every day. I know the enormous sense of responsibility many women have today, and how hard they are working to fit it all in. For so many, it can seem virtually impossible to take just a minute for themselves. But I also hear how worrisome unwanted weight gain and lack of “get up and go” are for many women. And these things are often intimately connected to the stress in our lives. Our bodies have internal wisdom and the instinct to try and protect us from all that stress by holding on to those extra pounds. When you give yourself permission to step away from it all – just for a minute – you let your body know there’s no real crisis. This allows time for your adrenals to heal. And when that happens, those extra pounds might disappear quicker than you think they can!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD