Compared with the more obvious factors that may lead someone to become overweight or obese, stress doesn’t get much attention, but it’s a bigger part of the problem than you may think. Making healthy choices about eating and exercising is much more difficult when you’re under stress, and ongoing mental strain can take a physical toll in a variety of serious ways. It’s a circular issue: Stress has a negative impact on your body, and feeling physically unhealthy creates more stress.

Understanding how stress and the chemical reactions associated with it are linked to weight gain is an important part of managing both problems.

Why Do We Feel Stress?

While stress may seem like a negative side effect of living in a society, it does serve a purpose from an evolutionary standpoint. Stress is your body’s way of reacting to the world around you. In the short term, a small amount can be beneficial. When you are under stress, your body releases hormones that increase your heart rate and respiratory rate to prepare your body for action, driving you to get out of immediate danger. Once the alarming situation is over, your body should go back to normal.

Unfortunately, today’s stressful situations aren’t usually the quick “fight or flight” incidents that affected our ancestors. Many of us face prolonged stress because of family responsibilities, demanding work schedules, and traumatic events from our past. Our bodies weren’t made to operate under continual stress. When you feel pressure for a long period of time, your body never gets the chance to relax. This can lead to several debilitating issues, including anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, and irritability.

Cortisol and Stress

There are many hormones related to stress, but cortisol is one of the most powerful. When you are facing a stressful situation, your brain triggers your adrenal glands to release cortisol, a natural steroid. When this hormone hits your bloodstream, it affects many parts of your body.

Cortisol is essential—without it, your body wouldn’t react properly to dangerous situations. However, it’s important that your body has the right amount. Too much cortisol can lead to weight gain, but if you have too little, you could be too tired to exercise. In either case, cortisol can severely impact your ability to manage your weight.

Managing Your Cortisol Level

Whether your cortisol level is too high or too low, there are steps you can take to bring it back to a normal range. Here are five simple ways to maintain a healthy cortisol level:

  1. Have Fun
    People who enjoy life are usually healthier than those who never make time for themselves. It doesn’t matter if you prefer going for drives, reading, watching TV, spending time outside, or doing arts and crafts. Find something you enjoy doing and do it.
  2. Recognize and Avoid Stress When Possible
    Stressful situations will never be completely unavoidable, but every one of us can take steps to reduce the amount of pressure we face day to day. There are various coping mechanisms you can use to prevent stress, like setting realistic goals, maintaining supportive relationships, challenging unproductive beliefs, and knowing when to ask for help.
  3. Get Better Sleep
    While many of us think we can function well enough on five or six hours of sleep per night, we really need seven or eight hours to be fully rested. Unfortunately, in our busy world, sleep is not always easy to come by. You can improve your sleep by keeping a consistent schedule, avoiding caffeine in the evening, and turning off all screens half an hour before bedtime.
  4. Get a Pet
    Studies have shown that people who own pets have less stress—you may even know someone that goes everywhere with a certified emotional support animal to keep them calm. Caring for a cat or dog fosters a rewarding sense of companionship, and walking or playing with them is a solid way to get mild exercise regularly.
  5. Medical Supplements
    When behavioral changes don’t work, an endocrinologist may recommend prescription or over-the-counter supplements to decrease your cortisol level.

The symptoms of low cortisol include confusion, dizziness, fatigue, and weakness. Low cortisol levels are rare, and they may be the result of a serious medical condition. If you’ve been tested, and your cortisol level is low, you should consult with an endocrinologist.

Take the Stress out of Weight Loss With Diet Doc

In America, people who struggle with their weight may face judgment from their peers. This fact is unfortunate but true. If you are among the 80 million Americans with some weight to lose, it doesn’t mean that you are lazy. Sometimes, our stressful lives make it difficult to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and medical conditions exacerbate the problem.

Diet Doc is here to help you reach a healthy weight and live a healthy lifestyle. Our physician-supervised weight loss programs go beyond setting a diet and exercise regimen and prescribing medication—our doctors and coaches will work with you closely to measure your progress and make sure your treatment is making a positive impact both physically and mentally. If you think high levels of stress are holding you back from achieving your ideal weight, request a consultation to learn how we can help.