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LifeBalance Blog

Weight loss continues to be unreachable – is stress one of the factors?

I was recently at the grocery store and took notice of how the struggle for weight control is failing miserably in our culture. It was a reminder that the simple formula of calories in vs. calories out does not work for many women and men who have been fighting this battle for years and years.

There has to be something else going on! A metabolic imbalance? A gut imbalance? Toxic overload? A hormone imbalance? Where do we begin?

In [this] blog I want to focus on the physiological changes that occur with the chronic stress that many of us experience every day and how that may be impacting the struggle for a healthy weight.

Fight or flight –nature’s life saving response

The fight or flight response is the physiological reaction that occurs during times of perceived danger – a threat to our survival. Throughout history when being chased by a wild animal the human body needed to evolve to gather all the energy needed to win that chase. Many systems will be altered to allow for the muscular action needed to flee. Some of the changes that will occur include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure to get blood to the muscles and other organs.

  • Increased rate of breathing to allow adequate oxygen to the brain and muscles.

  • Blood sugar and fat are released from storage to provide needed energy.

  • A cascade of hormones ultimately leads to an increase in cortisol to allow the body to stay at high alert.

Again, these are all important processes when we are running from a wild animal. But today in our high stress environment, it is the daily stressors that cause these changes to be chronic. Not only can this stress response increase cortisol levels it can ultimately disrupt the natural cortisol rhythm in the body.

The chronic dilemma of fight or flight

Why is this a problem? Let’s take a look at what occurs when cortisol levels remain high.

  • Blood sugar remains elevated.

  • Glucose is not readily utilized by the cells for energy and cells are less receptive to insulin.

  • Sugar cravings and feelings of hunger increase.

  • Fat burning decreases.

  • Hormones including DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone and thyroid stimulating hormone are suppressed.

  • Fat storage increases, raising abdominal fat and creating a fatty liver.

  • Triglycerides circulating in the blood increase.

So, what’s the problem? Your neuro-endocrine system doesn’t realize that you didn’t fight or flee! It continues to respond to stress with a multitude of reactions creating feelings of increased hunger and increased desire for quick energy from carbohydrates, allowing for increased abdominal fat deposition.

Though you may be working hard at controlling your calorie intake and getting adequate exercise, this stress that you have become so accustomed to is fighting your ability to be successful in your efforts to maintain a healthy weight.

What can you do about it? Becoming a better stress manager

Eliminate the stress! Great idea, right? Of course, that may be easier said then done. The fact is, however, that individuals who are healthiest (and most successful) are not necessarily those who have less stress than the rest of us. They are those individuals who are great at coping with the stress that they are constantly bombarded with.

Your job – get great at the management of the stressors in your life! Not only will you be reducing your risk of chronic disease, a smaller waistline will also be an important result.

Steps you can take

  • Whenever you feel your body tensing or your blood pressure rising, simply stop and take 3 deep breaths.

  • Before you begin a meal. Take 3 deep breaths.

  • Practice meditation. Spend at least 5 minutes each day sitting quietly, listening to your breath or calming music or utilize a guided meditation (I love the Simply Being app).

  • Make a list of your priorities. When you are asked to add something else to your calendar before saying yes – think if it fits with your priorities.

  • Use positive self-talk to help you calm down and control your stress. Instead of saying “I can’t do this,” say “I will do the best that I can.”

  • Practice yoga or tai chi.

  • Do something fun every day.

If you struggle to have the best health you desire, start with managing your stress. I promise it will be worth the effort.


Lynda Binius Enright, MS, RDN, LD, CLT

Be Well Nutritional Consulting

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