Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight will understand when I say that it takes a lot of energy to fight unwanted pounds! In an ideal world we would all have the energy and motivation to adhere to the perfect exercise regimen, to consistently cook fresh, nourishing, homemade meals, and to just get through each day with the positivity and reassurance that we are on the right track.
Don’t get me wrong… I am a huge advocate for healthy exercise, nourishing food as medicine, and a positive attitude. The trouble is, it can be difficult to follow this path when we’re overtired, overworked, overstressed, and just plain over it! Not to mention the fact that when our bodies are burdened by the effects of chronic stress, even our absolute best weight loss efforts tend to be met with resistance.
We all have times in our life when the demands are greater, and our stress load is heavier. And for many women I work with, it feels like this is just the way it is all the time.
Regardless of the reasons – illness, relationship difficulties, work struggles, caring for an aging parent or a young child, trying to keep up with an unbelievably fast-paced world – periods of stress have a physical impact on our bodies, and on our weight.
For one thing, when we’re stressed and exhausted, we’re way more likely to turn to food for comfort! We also may not be focusing enough on nourishing ourselves properly.
But it’s not just our eating habits that change when we’re overburdened. During times of stress, our bodies undergo actual physiological changes, many of which can lead to weight gain, or weight loss resistance. A lot of these changes come as a result of adrenal fatigue (which comes as a result of chronic stress).
Our adrenal glands govern our stress response, by secreting hormones relative to our stress levels. They actually help to control many hormonal cycles and functions in our body. When the adrenal glands and the rest of our stress response system are overworked, the body prepares for disaster by storing fat and calories. We crave specific foods, we lose precious energy, and we gain weight.
The good news is, it is possible to lose weight (and feel great!) even if you are currently struggling with adrenal fatigue. Let’s look into this together and find out how to restore adrenal function and support your body for healthy weight loss.
How Stress Becomes Physical
For millions of years, humans were forced to protect themselves from environmental factors. From the earliest days of dinosaurs and cavemen, nature has proven its ability to inspire fear in human beings. Life and death circumstances have evolved around the ability to understand danger, and seek protection and survival. If you were being chased by a predator, your adrenal glands initiated a “fight or flight” response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the body. These hormones provide extra physical energy and strength from stored carbohydrates and fats.
While most of our stressors are not the same as our earliest ancestors (we don’t really have to worry about being chased by tigers anymore), the body’s natural course of evolution has maintained this original fight-or-flight stress response. But whether we are being physically threatened or not, with any increased stress our body looks to its stored fuel, and then replenishes it when used.
Modern-day stress may be more psychological than physiological, but our adrenals don’t really know the difference. Today’s stress is also more constant. Many of us face chronic stress as a way of life, which can mean consistently elevated levels of cortisol. When that happens, the body thinks it continually needs extra fuel, and typically stores that as fat around the abdomen – or as it’s commonly referred to, the old “spare tire.”
Another effect of increased levels of cortisol is that our body does not respond as well to leptin, which is the hormone that makes us feel full. Of course, this means we eat more, probably without realizing it.
Adrenal Fatigue & Weight Loss Resistance
I work with women all the time who are doing everything “right” or have seemingly tried every diet and fitness program on the planet, but they’re still struggling to lose weight.
Weight loss resistance is really common, and it’s generally an indication of an underlying imbalance of some kind. In my practice, adrenal fatigue is almost always behind weight loss resistance.
Adrenal fatigue interferes with digestive function, contributes to insulin resistance, and contributes to hormonal imbalances in general, another common issue that underlies weight loss resistance.
Adrenal fatigue also has the special ability to lead to a buildup of belly fat, which is one of the hardest kinds of weight to lose, and one that can lead to more serious health problems.
Belly Fat: A Common Sign of Adrenal Fatigue
Adrenal imbalance can lead to all kinds of different issues, including an expanded waistline. Why is it the belly in particular that tends to collect extra fat during periods of high stress and adrenal dysfunction?
The science behind it is quite interesting. Normally, when we begin to feel hungry, our blood sugar drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol activates glucose, fats, and amino acids to keep our body fueled with energy until we eat.
Cortisol maintains blood sugar levels, and insulin helps our cells absorb glucose. When we have long term stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood, and the extra glucose is stored as fat–mostly in the abdomen.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Scientists have discovered that fat cells actually have special receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies!
In addition, scientists have shown that belly fat is actually an active tissue, acting as an endocrine organ that responds to the stress response by actually welcoming more fat to be deposited! This is a vicious cycle that will continue until we take steps to correct this adrenal imbalance. How do we do that so we can overcome adrenal fatigue and achieve weight loss?
Adrenal Fatigue Weight Loss – Eat Well for Healthy Adrenal Glands
What you eat matters
When we hear the word “stress”, what most of us think of is perceived stress– in other words, emotional or mental stress, or the events and challenges in our personal and work lives that make us feel stressed. But the body endures many other kinds of stress, which combine and contribute to burnout and adrenal fatigue. Inflammatory, processed, refined, and sugary foods are stressors just like a tight deadline is a stressor.
Choosing fresh, whole, anti-inflammatory foods is a non-negotiable when looking to restore adrenal function and achieve healthy weight loss.
When you eat matters
If you want your body to believe that it is not in danger of starving to death, you need to eat healthy food at regular intervals. Since cortisol helps regulate blood sugar, keeping glucose levels balanced will take some of the stress off the adrenal glands. Three nutritious meals and two healthy snacks spread out across the day will keep our adrenal glands steady.
Our natural circadian rhythms can help us know when our bodies need nourishment and fuel. Cortisol’s cycle complements our body’s own rhythms. Cortisol’s rhythm is generally disrupted and dysregulated in times of adrenal fatigue, but when everything is functioning properly, cortisol is highest in the morning, and it declines gradually throughout the day.
When we eat, we elevate our cortisol levels, so it’s ideal to consume larger meals earlier in the day, which also helps our body prepare itself for restful sleep at night.
Have healthy foods on hand
It may be easy to reach for sweets and caffeine for quick energy, but these actually backfire on us, dropping our blood sugar levels rapidly. Reaching for micronutrient-rich foods, such as lean protein, avocado, fresh fruits and vegetables, garlic, and ginger will more adequately support adrenal function.
Supplement your daily diet
Adrenal expert Shawn Talbott, PhD, says, “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.” The benefits of a daily multivitamin enhance many of the functions in our body.
There are a number of other supplements that may also be helpful when it comes to supporting adrenal function, including adaptogenic herbs that help to regulate our stress response.
For more information on healthy eating and adrenal glands, see my article “Eating to Support Your Adrenal Glands” about how to eat for your adrenal health.
Adrenal Fatigue Weight Loss Starting Points – Slowing Down to Heal
Our fast-paced world is never unplugged. We rarely have time to disconnect from technology, our cell phones, the Internet, email, even Netflix.
And our adrenal glands notice! Instead of letting the tired and wired reality be a fact of life, work on slowing down and restoring balance to your adrenal glands, and your life. You may think that by moving fast you will lose weight, but in fact, when stress levels are high and our adrenals are working overtime, we will stay in a perpetuating cycle of adding pounds. Here’s how we can learn to pace ourselves to promote adrenal fatigue weight loss.
Many of my patients complain of being tired all day then having trouble sleeping at night. This is one of the most frustrating effects of adrenal fatigue! What’s happening is that they’re caught in an upside down circadian rhythm, meaning that cortisol levels are dysregulated. This causes irregular sleep patterns, and an overall unhealthy pattern in which we are exhausted during the day (especially in the afternoon), but wired at night.
All of the diet and lifestyle tips for overcoming adrenal fatigue will help, but there are also a few things you can do to assist your body with normalizing your circadian rhythm again.
These include eating less food late in the day, turning off all screens, including television, by 8 p.m. (and this means no smartphones in the bedroom!), and by trying to be in bed and asleep by 10 p.m. The goal is to have at least eight hours of sleep, so that our bodies can rest and regulate our hormonal cycles.
Exercise (in Moderation)
Our adrenals respond to stress, even if we think it is positive. Exercise is positive, and can help us reduce stress, but only if we are not over-exerting ourselves. When we are exhausted, our adrenals are already working hard, and too much vigorous exercise can put added strain on them. The goal is to keep your heart rate under 90 beats per minute when working out. If you’re not used to regular exercise, walking 15 minutes once or twice a day after meals, outside in fresh air, makes our adrenals, and our mind and body, very happy.
Don’t forget that having fun, laughing, and enjoying your time are all vital to being able to relax! We all need to make having fun a priority; the benefits are amazing! I repeat this all the time, because I really want to get the message across that having fun and unwinding is truly important for reversing the effects of chronic stress– think of it like a prescription.
Don’t forget to breathe
Deep breaths in and out through your nose can not only slow your heart rate down, but will calm your entire body. Sometimes when we are under stress our breathing becomes shallow, and fast. It only takes three or four deep breaths to feel better. Try to remember that slowing down our breath, as well as our life, even for a few minutes, can make a big difference in reducing our stress level if we make it a healthy habit.
Achieve Adrenal Fatigue Weight Loss By Letting Go
It isn’t always easy to let things go. We put pressure on ourselves to meet the demands in our lives. We must take care of others, do well in our endeavors, and make everyone around us happy. But when we forget about ourselves in that equation, the stress will appear as extra pounds and other symptoms that interfere with optimal health. When we live with continually elevated levels of stress, the body adjusts to the “crisis mode” and sometimes needs help learning how to live in a calmer state. The first step is to heal your adrenals. Follow the tips in this article, give yourself time, and be patient. You will begin to replenish your energy, lose extra weight, and most importantly, feel better.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD