Deep inside your brain are two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei called amygdalae – one on each side of the brain.
The amygdala plays a critical role in processing your emotions, especially fear and anxiety. When necessary, the amygdala sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus, which links your nervous system and your endocrine (hormone) system.
The hypothalamus then activates the adrenal glands – located just above your kidneys – causing them to release a surge of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones stimulate faster breathing, faster heart rate, high alertness and cause the liver to release more blood sugar to make more fuel available.
These mechanisms are essential and valuable for responding to stress and potential threats.
Cortisol and Stress
We are all likely familiar with the experience of stress, of being overwhelmed or feeling under pressure. It can be physical, emotional, or psychological stress.
Stress is a normal response to challenging or dangerous situations. In small doses, it’s even helpful, mobilizing your body to deal with the problem.
But when stress is constant and unrelenting, it can hurt your body, causing a host of problems for our physical and mental health.
When researchers aim to study the causes and effects of stress, subjective reports from participants on their stress levels are often not enough or unreliable. Researchers have therefore developed ways to measure physiological markers of stress in the body. The most effective biomarker for measuring stress appears to be cortisol levels.
The more stressed we feel, the higher our cortisol levels. This is why cortisol is commonly called “the stress hormone.”
Cortisol and Weight Gain
Higher levels of cortisol – and high levels of stress – are closely associated with obesity.
This could be related to the way cortisol interacts with other metabolic processes. The adrenal response to stress is preparing your body to fight or run away in response to a threat, which requires more energy, which requires more energy intake.
You probably don’t feel hungry during those moments of acute stress – you have more urgent priorities to deal with. But when the stressor is gone and the “fight or flight” response subsides, your appetite returns, seeking to replenish the energy it used up during the stress response.
If you are experiencing chronic and unrelenting stress, this stress-induced increase in appetite will likely lead to overeating and weight gain.
Reducing Stress, Reducing Cortisol, and Reducing Weight
This link between stress and weight gain suggests that one way to reduce weight may be to reduce stress.
Finding healthier ways to avoid and manage stress can empower you to develop a healthier relationship with food and improve your overall health and quality of life.
Exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on cortisol levels. Mindfulness meditation and other stress-reduction techniques may also help lower cortisol levels and promote a more relaxed state of mind.
If you are struggling with chronic stress and are worried about the impact it may be having on your health, consider seeing a mental health professional who can help you learn to manage your stress in a healthy way.