Stop Gaining Weight—and Even Shed Those Extra Pounds—with these Natural Stress Busters
Printed with permission from Dr. Mark Stengler’s Health Revelations (www.healthrevelations.com)
Many patients come to the Stengler Center here in San Diego for help with their weight.
Often, the people I see are those who’ve been very diligent with their diet and exercise program, yet they still have problems losing weight.
While it’s true that they may need a different diet and exercise program, their unwanted pounds may be rooted in something else: hormonal problems.
One of the culprits I look at is cortisol, the “stress hormone” produced by your adrenal glands (located on top of your kidneys) that’s associated with obesity—particularly high levels of it over prolonged periods of time.
In and of itself, cortisol isn’t a “bad” hormone. It actually has vital functions in your body’s “fight or flight” system, helping it cope with a variety of stresses. Cortisol works to increase blood glucose levels to help energy production… increases your heart rate and blood pressure… and fights inflammation.
Yet, when cortisol is elevated for prolonged periods of time—such as weeks and months—it causes imbalance in the body, including weight gain.
So, to keep those pounds from packing on, you’ve got to take a two-pronged approach: 1) reduce the stress in your environment and 2) balance your body’s response to the stressors you can’t eliminate.
I’ve developed a natural stress-busting protocol that has helped many of my patients fight some of the toughest weight loss battles, which I’ll share with you in a moment.
But first, a bit more about how this hormone can hijack your weight—and your waistline—when it’s allowed to run amok.
Are You in a Constant State of “Code Red”?
When your mind or your body perceives stress (whether it is physical, mental, emotional, or chemical), an area at the base of your brain known as the hypothalamus sets off a cascade of nerve and hormonal signals. These signals activate a gland in your brain known as the pituitary gland, which in turn alerts the adrenal glands to release a burst of stress hormones, including cortisol.
When things are running normally, cortisol levels are normally highest in the morning as you’re gearing up for the day and lowest at night as you’re winding down. But under chronic stress—when everything feels like a fire that needs to be put out—many people have abnormally high cortisol levels throughout the day and night.
A recent study published in the mainstream journal Obesity involving 2,527 British men and women aged 54 and older confirmed what we already knew about how this hormone can sabotage healthy weight management. In the study, those who were chronically exposed to elevated cortisol concentrations over several months not only gained weight, but also saw increases in their body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.1
How Your Body Converts Stress into Fat
There are several ways that cortisol can lead to weight gain. For one, there’s good research demonstrating that elevated cortisol can stimulate your appetite and cravings, through its direct effect on the brain and other hormones.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve ever found yourself “stress-eating” your way through tough times.
But what you may have never noticed (because you can’t feel it) is that cortisol also stimulates your liver to convert amino acids and other non-glucose substances into sugar, leading to increased glucose levels.
It’s actually a “double whammy,” because chronically elevated cortisol levels also blunt the effect of insulin. When you become insulin resistant, your body has problems transporting glucose into the cells for energy. As a result, the excess blood glucose is stored as fat.
So, the “stress hormone” is involved in the development of mature fat cells, but it does something else that makes you gain weight: It mobilizes your existing stores of fat (e.g. triglycerides) and moves them to tissue deep in your abdomen.
That’s why one of the symptoms of elevated cortisol is an increase in belly fat.
Not only is a growing waistline a sensitive topic for many people who struggle with weight, but it also can be a major health concern, as it’s the area of fat deposits that is correlated most with increased inflammatory markers and cardiovascular disease.
And lastly, high cortisol levels suppress thyroid function. More specifically, it suppresses the most metabolically-active thyroid hormone, known as T3. As I’ve mentioned before, T3 has a pronounced effect on increasing metabolism in your cells.
Low levels of it therefore lead to a slow metabolism… and weight gain.
Neutralize Stress In and Out of your Body
The study I mentioned earlier analyzed cortisol levels using hair analysis, but this type of testing isn’t readily available. Other, more common options include urinalysis, saliva, and morning cortisol.
A holistic doctor can help you with this type of testing.
Of course, if you’ve had high levels of stress for a long period of time… and you notice your abdominal circumference increasing… there’s a good chance you have too high of a cortisol level. You may not even need a test to know for sure.
And you certainly don’t have to wait for lab work to come back before doing something about it.
First, you can lower your cortisol by making a few adjustments to your lifestyle and your environment. Some tried-and-true methods include prayer, deep abdominal breathing, and increased social interaction.
I also recommend listening to positive music, getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, and reducing simple sugars and stimulants (which aren’t doing you any good in the restful sleep department).
But many of my patients benefit from additional, natural support—namely, supplements that have been shown to decrease cortisol levels. One, a steroid hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), has shown to significantly decrease abdominal fat in older folks.2
Your body produces DHEA naturally, so have your doc test your levels before starting any supplements. If you could use a boost, a typical dose for women is 10 to 15 mg. For men, it’s 25 to 50 mg.
As well, the Ayurvedic herb known as ashwagandha is a popular stress reliever that’s shown to help ease elevated cortisol levels. According to recent prospective, randomized, double-blind clinical study, ashwagandha root extract was able to reduce BOTH psychological and physiological markers in people suffering from chronic stress and related disorders.
They saw not only a dip in their serum cortisol levels, but also improvements in their mental well-being, food cravings, and eating behaviors—making it a valuable resource in supporting weight management. In the study, those who took ashwagandha lost a statistically significant amount of weight and reduced their BMI, compared to placebo.3
The recommended dosage is 250 to 300 mg daily of a standardized extract.
You can get both DHEA and ashwagandha from your local health food store or online. Choose one from a maker you trust.
- Sarah E. Jackson, Clemens Kirschbaum, Andrew Steptoe. Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population-based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity, 2017; 25 (3): 539
- Villareal DT, Holloszy JO. Effect of DHEA on abdominal fat and insulin action in elderly women and men: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2004 Nov 10;292(18):2243-8.
- Dnyanraj Choudhary, MD, Sauvik Bhattacharyya, MPharm, PhD, Kedar Joshi, MD. Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract. A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2017 Jan;22(1):96-106.