Did you know there is a ranking system associated with life stressors? It’s called the Life Change Index Scale and ranks life events by how heavily they impact your mental well-being. High scores are even predictors of future illness. Events on the low end of the scale include minor violations of the law, approaching of Christmas, changes in social activities, or changes in sleeping habits. On the high end of the scale are events such as financial changes, marriage, personal injury or illness, divorce, and death of a loved one or close family member.1 If you have been experiencing a lot of change lately, your body may be anything but supportive. The body was designed to kick into survival mode during times of stress but it doesn’t always make us feel the best. We all are aware that stressful events can lead us to consume more food as a coping mechanism, but is there a biochemical shift in our bodies that actually makes us pack on the pounds?
According to a study published in 2017, cortisol (the stress hormone) was found to be associated with markers of adiposity and obesity over time. The author writes, “…results provide consistent evidence that long-term exposure to elevated levels of cortisol over several months is associated with higher levels of adiposity.”2 Cortisol is a hormone that is produce by the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys. If you have ever heard the loosely-used term “adrenal fatigue”, you may already be familiar with the negative effects of chronic exposure to stressful situations. The enzyme that is used to convert cortisone to cortisol is located in fat tissues. Studies also show that visceral fat (abdominal fat) contains more of these enzymes than subcutaneous fat cells.3 In other words, cortisol is more likely to affect the area around your stomach. This isn’t a new idea; a study in 1994 even pointed out that there is an association between abdominal fat distribution and uncontrollable stress.4
As obesity trends are on the rise, efforts to combat weight gain are increasingly important to health care providers and mental health is becoming a popular topic of interest. If you see the number on the scale going up, or seem to be having a hard time losing weight even with effort, it may be time to consider if you are in a healthy mind space. Take a day to reflect on your emotions and listen carefully to the subconscious thoughts that pass through your mind. Are you overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness or feeling like you are at your breaking point? Are your thoughts more negative than positive? Great stress reducers include deep breathing exercises, yoga, taking a walk, listening to peaceful music, or anything that helps you wind down. You may benefit from seeing a therapist or trying herbal remedies such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, chamomile, or passionflower. As Josiah Gilbert once said, “Calmness is the cradle of power.”
- Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test). Dartmouth College. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~eap/library/lifechangestresstest.pdf. Accessed January 23, 2018.
- Jackson, S. E., Kirschbaum, C. and Steptoe, A. (2017), Hair cortisol and adiposity in a population-based sample of 2,527 men and women aged 54 to 87 years. Obesity. 25: 539–544. doi: 10.1002/oby.21733
- Maglione-Garves C, Kravitz L, Schneider S. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress University of New Mexico. http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html. Accessed January 23, 2018.
- Moyer AE, Rodin J, Grilo CM, Cummings N, Larson LM, Rebuffé-scrive M. Stress-induced cortisol response and fat distribution in women. Obes Res. 1994;2(3):255-62.