Sarah, a long-standing patient of mine, was baffled. Despite eating well and exercising, she had put on thirty pounds over the course of two years, mostly around her midsection. In addition, she experienced chronic fatigue, muscle aches, poor sleep, and worsening memory and concentration – and she was only thirty years old! The one thing that had changed in her life was a difficult divorce, leading to ongoing stress with her ex-husband and their two children.
The stress – obesity connection
Sarah is not alone in joining the ranks of the obese. Obesity is an epidemic that is sweeping the developed world. Excess weight is not only a risk for diabetes and heart disease, but recent research has linked obesity with increased cancer incidence and worse outcomes in those with cancer. Poor dietary habits are strongly linked to obesity and fatigue, especially the use of high glycemic foods (those that spike blood sugar), excess calories (supersized meals), and fats that stimulate inflammation (trans fats, baked goods, red meat, and whole dairy not organically produced). One common thread in each of these dietary indiscretions is its effect on blood chemistry, including elevated cortisol levels, the main stress hormone from the adrenal gland (check out The Adaptation Diet to learn more). However, as Sarah now knows, it is not diet alone that raises cortisol and increases the risk for obesity and disease – the other major trigger is chronic stress.
What is cortisol, and how does it impact weight?
Cortisol is essential for life – without it, survival would be impossible. It is the main way we respond to any stress-mobilizing energy, through the release of fatty acids, raising of blood sugar, and moving blood from the digestive system to the muscles. In addition, cortisol suppresses the immune system, reduces inflammation, and decreases sex hormone production – it is catabolic, which means it breaks down muscle to use as energy. All of these changes are intended to help with survival, and once our stress is resolved, cortisol returns to baseline levels.
Today’s stressors are different
However, the stress we experience today and the stress experienced by our ancestors are completely different. In past generations, stressful events were about survival – you either caught lunch or you were lunch. Today, whether your stressor is a boss who does not respect you, a sick family member, a difficult relationship, or a lack of quiet time, the cortisol response does not resolve as it would after a fight-or-flight response. Elevated cortisol continues to change the body, and is associated with obesity, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and increased cancer risks. This is what happened to Sarah.
Gaining control over the cortisol response
To gain control over the stress response, Sarah used the information from Power of the Five Elements to understand her Adaptation Type. She learned that the anger and frustration she carried was difficult to release because she was a Wood Adaptation Type, meaning she had a hard time with forgiveness and patience. Once she was able to see her behavior through this “map,” she followed specific exercises to enhance her ability to forgive and reduce her cortisol levels – in addition, she eventually lost those extra pounds and learned to feel better about herself.
You can fight cortisol and lose weight
In my practice I’ve found that many people who are seeking to lose weight can feel powerless after trying numerous typical “diets” and increasing their exercise level – only to find that they still can’t shed the unwanted pounds.
The truth is, there are other factors in addition to diet and exercise that can play a huge role in weight loss (or gain). Stress and elevated cortisol levels are a key contributor for many people, and can prevent other weight-loss strategies from working correctly.
So if you’re feeling like you’ve tried every diet and exercise program you can find, and “nothing works” for you, you’re not alone. By improving your adaptation and reducing stress, you can have greater control over your weight – and your overall health as well.