Over the past two decades there have been a large number of studies showing that stress causes both obesity and diabetes in a variety of ways. Studies also show that stress makes weight loss difficult.
This is one of the reasons why some people can’t seem to lose weight no matter how well they eat or how much they exercise. I believe that stress is one of the most important, though most often overlooked, factors driving the diabetes epidemic.
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Stress is a bigger problem than you think.
When hearing the term “stress,” most people only think of psychological stress. And when asked what situations could cause stress, they may answer things like losing a job, having a fight with their partner, or driving in traffic.
While it is true that psychological adversities and challenges like these are considerable stressors, many people don’t take into account that stress is also caused by physiological problems, such as:
- Chronic infections.
- Autoimmune diseases.
- Environmental toxins.
- Subsistence allowance.
Even if your psychological stress levels are quite low, any of the conditions listed above can cause a chronic stress reaction in your body. And as we’ll see in the next section, chronic stress can even make you gain weight and even become diabetic.
Ten Ways Stress Could Make You Gain Weight.
When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released at a specific rate during the day.
It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start the day) and gradually decrease throughout the day (so that you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep ).
Recent research shows that chronic stress not only increases absolute cortisol levels, but also disrupts the natural rhythm of cortisol. And this alteration in the rhythm of cortisol is what wreaks so much havoc on your body. These are some of its effects:
- Raises blood sugar.
- It makes it harder for glucose to get into cells.
- It makes you hungry and gives you sugar cravings.
- Reduce your ability to burn fat.
- It suppresses the HPA axis, which causes hormonal imbalances.
- Lower your levels of DHEA, testosterone, growth hormone, and TSH.
- It makes your cells less sensitive to insulin.
- Increases belly fat and makes liver oily.
- Increase the rate at which you store fat.
- Increases the level of fatty acids and triglycerides in the blood.
Each of these consequences alone could make you fat and promote the development of diabetes, but added together they are almost a perfect recipe for the presence of diabetes.
Our bodies are not built to withstand chronic stress.
One of the reasons chronic stress is so destructive is that our bodies didn’t evolve to deal with it. We are only prepared to handle acute short-term stress quite well.
In the Paleolithic era, this situation could have occurred when being chased by a lion or when we were hunting for our next meal. In fact, this type of stress can even be beneficial for our body, since it improves our ability to react to the adversities of life.
However, we are not adapted to tolerate the chronic stress that has become increasingly common in modern life. This type of stress causes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, something psychologists call a “defeat response.”
And it is this defeating response that leads to increased fat storage, abdominal obesity, tissue breakdown, immune system suppression, and all of the other effects listed above that directly cause obesity and diabetes.
A closer look at insomnia, diet, and exercise.
Let’s take a closer look at three stressors that can very often make us fat and increase our chances of getting diabetes: insomnia, diet, and exercise.
More than a third of people in the US suffer from insomnia, with more than 42 million prescriptions for sleep medications in 2007. Several studies show that lack of sleep raises cortisol and increases the chances of gaining weight and developing diabetes.
An article showed that restricting sleep to 5 hours a night for just one week significantly reduces insulin sensitivity. Another study conducted earlier this year showed that even a sleepless night increased appetite in healthy young adults.
An estimated 50-60% of Americans are on a diet at any given time. This is a very large number. And while it may seem illogical that eating a certain diet contributes to obesity and diabetes, it makes more sense when you understand that diet is a stressor that disrupts our rhythm of cortisol.
A 2001 study showed that “cognitive dietary restriction” (stressing over food or having overly restrictive diets) raises cortisol levels. Studies have also shown that calorie restriction, which is common in low-fat diets, increases cortisol levels.
Finally, while not common in the general population, exercising too much can also predispose you to weight gain and diabetes. Since it raises cortisol levels, breaks down muscle tissue and increases fat storage.
This especially if cortisol levels were already elevated or altered by other stressors such as intestinal infections, insomnia, food toxins or psychological factors. It’s not uncommon (in the paleo/fitness subculture at least) to find people who eat well and exercise their brains, but still can’t lose weight.
So, if you are having difficulty controlling your weight or blood sugar, don’t diet, get enough sleep, and take exercise easy. This way you will be much better.