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Is Stress Sabotaging Your Weight Loss Results?

By John Leyva / July 1, 2017

Stress! The word alone can make you feel stressed out. If you’re among those feeling like you have too much stress and not enough time to deal with it, you’re definitely not alone.

Every year, the American Psychological Association puts out a stress survey where they question over 1,000 Americans about their levels of stress. In 2011, over half of Americans (53%) reported having physical symptoms due to stress in the past month.

This article will detail some of the physical maladies of stress, how the stress response in your body works, in particular how it affects weight loss.

Stress Causes & Symptoms

You’re probably aware stress contributes to diseases, but did you know that stress is related to 7 of the top 10 killers in the US? Everything from the heart disease and cancer, to diabetes and suicide. In 2011’s APA Stress report, beyond work and family responsibilities, the economy, money worries, and family health problems rounded out the top 5 reasons people cited for stress in their lives.

In addition to all of these psychological factors that cause stress, you might have many physical stressors affecting your body without you even knowing. For example, poor sleep is a major stressor on your body yet most people report not getting enough sleep. Additionally, unknown food sensitivities, blood sugar dysregulation, drug supplies in the water, and poor air quality can all contribute to the stress-load on your body. I mention these additional physical reasons, not to scare you, but because, no matter the sources of the stressor, your body’s response to the stress is the same.

Your Body’s Response to Stress

Cortisol is released when your body perceives a stressor and acts as a low-level type of adrenalin released from your adrenal cortex. If you’ve heard of cortisol before reading this article, you’ve probably heard that it’s bad for fat loss and that you probably have too much of it from the amount of stress in your life.

The truth is a bit more complicated than that. Cortisol is a diurnal hormone, meaning your levels of cortisol should peak in the morning (to give you energy) and slowly drop down as the day progresses so you can fall asleep at night. Basically, cortisol is the hormone of energy and alertness. In a normal cortisol cycle, cortisol, in the absence of insulin, helps burn fat along with growth hormone in the morning.

Most people, though, don’t have a “normal” cortisol cycle. For example, most individuals “need” coffee in the morning. This means their cortisol production in the morning is lower than what it should be. Coffee, or more particular, caffeine helps in the morning by causing your body to release a small amount of cortisol. This cortisol release gives you the energy you need to get past the morning but can also cause an over-stimulatory effect on your adrenal cortex, making you rely more and more on coffee over time.

Another sign of a skewed diurnal signal is when you seem to get a burst of extra energy at night. This extra energy at night can cause even more problems as you go to bed later, get less sleep and wake up fatigued, yet again, the next day. This becomes a vicious cycle that can go on for years of fatigue in the morning, energy at night, and poor sleep overall.

How Stress Affects Weight Loss

Cortisol’s main job is to provide energy when confronted with a stressor. In hunter-gatherer times, stress was typically an acute situation. You were chased by a predator and either fought it or ran away as fast as you could. After the stressor was over, you went about your life. In today’s society, the stress is almost constant and the chronic nature of stress can cause a number of issues when it comes to weight loss and health, especially when combined with easy access to unhealthy foods.

When cortisol is chronically released from an over-abundance of emotional and physical stress your body reacts in three main ways that negatively affects fat loss:

Weight Loss Problem #1: Cortisol Makes Cells Less Responsive

First, cortisol affects the receptor sites of other hormones making the cells less responsive to their signals. For example, Type II Diabetes is a disease where sufficient insulin is produced, but your body’s cells can’t read the insulin signal. This is called insulin resistance and the onset of insulin resistance typically leads to diabetes when not acted upon with correct dietary and activity changes. When insulin remains high (as happens when you have insulin resistance) your body will not release fat from its fat cells. This basically traps the fat you have into their cells, even if you go on a diet. This is why for some people, low carb diets can work wonders (because they had underlying insulin resistance).

Leptin is another hormone that plays a key role in losing weight. Leptin is a hormone released from your fat cells and acts as a thermostat to gauge how much fat you have and how fast you’re losing it. When leptin levels are high and your brain can read the signal you feel full and don’t over-eat. If your brain can’t read the signal though you have leptin resistance and feel hungry all the time. Generally, if you have insulin resistance, you also have leptin resistance.

Excessive stress and it’s concurrent release of cortisol negatively effects the receptors for both insulin and leptin, making it harder for your body to read the signals of those hormones. If your body can’t read the signals for insulin, fat stays trapped in your cells. If you can’t read the signals for leptin, you’re hungry all the time. Both of these things place you on an uphill battle when it comes to losing weight.

Weight Loss Problem #2: Cortisol Increases Inflammation

The second way cortisol negatively effects fat loss is by increasing inflammation throughout the body, via very scientific names such as interleukin-6 (IL-6), Tumor necrotic factor- alpha (TNF-A), etc.

Your body has different types of fat that reacts differently. For example, the fat under your skin – the fat that you can grab—is called subcutaneous fat. Another type of fat – lying deeper within your body and surrounding your organs—is called visceral fat. If you’ve ever seen someone with a “beer belly” then you’ve seen someone with a lot of visceral fat. Your body will preferentially store more visceral fat when under stress and why the waist-to-hip ratio can be a strong marker for health.

Visceral fat is considered more dangerous than subcutaneous fat for two reasons. First, visceral fat releases the same inflammatory signals cortisol does. Second, since it surrounds your organs, you increase your odds of organ damage.

Therefore, stress signals increase your likelihood of storing more visceral fat (unhealthy fat), while having more visceral fat increases the release of inflammatory signals. This causes a cycle of inflammation and increased visceral fat storage leading to more inflammation and so on.

Weight Loss Problem #3: Cortisol Dysregulates Hunger Hormones

The third way cortisol negatively effects fat loss is through a dysregulation of hunger hormones, in particular Ghrelin and Leptin. Leptin, as mentioned above, helps to control your appetite. When you’re overly stressed, leptin levels will drop, making you hungrier. “Growling Ghrelin” is a hormone released anytime you’re hungry and increases dramatically when you’re overly stressed.

The combination of a lower amount of the “anti-hunger” hormone Leptin, and an increase in the “hunger hormone” Ghrelin, causes people to over-eat. In particular, this combination has people reaching for fast-acting carb foods to spike their blood sugar as insulin helps blunt cortisol levels. In other words, you’re more prone to reach for the snickers bar than the broccoli and chicken because your body wants a quick release of sugar to help bring down your cortisol levels.

This can become another vicious cycle as high blood sugar causes an insulin spike, typically followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar. That drop in blood sugar causes your body to release cortisol to help stabilize your blood sugar. That increase in cortisol though also increases your hunger hormones (in particular Ghrelin) so you once again are more prone to reach for more sugary foods causing a rollercoaster of insulin spikes and dips.

After reading this far, you might feel as though there is no hope for you with all of these “vicious cycles.” The next article in this 2-part series is 5 simple tips to help manage the stress in your life so you can take control of these cycles once and for all.


  • bytechunks says:

    Great info in the right chunks... just the way i like it...
    Thanks for the article John

  • Jean says:

    Such a great article. Explanation of the hype around a much advertised product. Physiologic background information. Cites and links for those who want to go through the nitty-gritty details. Reeks of credibility!

  • Portia says:

    Interesting and useful as always! This is particularly relevant to me as I have recently been reading up on reasons behind the hard to shift fat we women suffer from. It appears that the stress hormones are also tied up with excess oestrogen production which also prevents fat loss. I've ditched the caffiene and am looking closely at my diet. However, I can't wait to read your tips for reducing stress levels. Thanks for such a brilliant, helpful and informative website.

  • Robert says:

    Interesting article, but not everyone leads a stressful life, and certainly not 24/7 anyway. There are many other reasons why people can't lose weight easily. Lifestyle, lack of excercise, eating the wrong foods can all contribute to difficulty in losing weight.

    There are foods that you can eat that will actually help you lose weight, and equally foods to avoid that will put weight on. You need to understand how different foods react on your body. There is no one size fits all to losing weight. More importantly, you want to make sure that you lose fat, and not muscle.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Robert - I didn't interpret the article the same way you did. John never mentioned that stress was the only reason why people can't lose weight and we keenly understand there is no single one size fits all approach to losing weight, which is why we have hundreds of articles on our site.

    • John Leyva, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Robert - You are correct in saying there are many reasons why people can't lose weight easily. In fact, there are about 25 different reasons that I've come up with over the years, from having different gut bacteria (can lower caloric burning by 100 calories per day) to being hypothyroid.

      As you said, there is no one size fits all to losing weight, but the basic three to four suggestions work for a majority of people:
      1 - Eat more real foods, while controlling calorie intake,
      2 - Exercise regularly, including strength training,
      3 - Get adequate sleep, and
      4 - Control stress.

      These 4 things tend to be inter-connected in how they affect each other, but if you're one of the lucky ones that doesn't lead a stressful life, then you should share your suggestion for doing so and can help others do the same. The follow-up article to this lists 5 that I like to do. If you can leave a comment on that article with your suggestions, it would be appreciated. Thanks for the comment.

  • Bryce says:

    I thought caffeine was good for weight loss?

    • John Leyva, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Bryce - Caffeine can be beneficial for weight loss, but if you absolutely depend on it in the morning, then more than likely your cortisol diurnal cycle is skewed. In the follow-up to this article ( http://www.builtlean.com/2012/10/24/manage-stress-tips/ ), I suggest switching to green tea, which has caffeine, but also has the amino acid theanine.

      • Bryce says:

        I drink coffee and green tea. Every morning I have a 14oz coffee (with one milk) and try to drink 3-4 cups of green tea each day. Do you think this is too much?

  • Hank says:

    What an excellent article. The fact that there is a viscious cycle explains why some people are always on a diet and still do not lose weight despite eating like a bird.

  • John Leyva says:

    @Bryce - That's really a call you would have to make. I'm not anti-caffeine and for certain genotypes, coffee can be beneficial. If you feel good at your current intake, it doesn't sound like it's too much. If on the other hand, you don't feel good, you might consider reducing your intake. Hope that helps.

  • Mercy says:

    John, thanks a million! The article certainly answers a lot of questions.
    I can't wait for the tips.I feel taking a lot of water particularly in the morning hours help a lot
    in loosing weight.

  • amanda says:

    I read that one of the first signs of cancer is unexplained weight loss. However, I don't understand how this would happen in something like skin cancer - what has a cancerous mole got to do with your weight and digestive system? Medical explanation, please!

  • Fatbee says:

    How long does it take for your body to show your fat loss? Any way to make ist faster?