How Does Stress Make Us Fat? An Interview With a Doctor.

How Does Stress Make Us Fat? An Interview With a Doctor.

Every single client of mine is stressed. This is not because of me 🙂

A demanding job, family commitments, too much soacial networking…in the 21st century high levels of stress are a norm. I asked Nichola Burns, a medical doctor and nutritionist, how exactly stress sabotages our fat loss goals and what we can do about it.

Here is Nichola’s Facebook page Nichola’s Natural Nutrition where you can find more in-depth information about training and nutrition

Olga – How do we define stress and how much is too much? At what point does the psychological stress start influencing our physical performance and fat loss?

Nichola – My basic answer to all of the above is that sleep is of key importance. Only then will body composition goals ever be achievable

O – Even if there is enough sleep but stressful job or wedding preparation?

N – Ultimately they inhibit sleep. So if you can get better sleep the stress from external factors will be reduced. But… if cannot then your training should be light and enjoyable or do some mild walking and yoga

O – The advice to reduce caffeine consumption when stressed and low energy is very popular. Is it a myth?

N – Yes, it is a myth. Deep sleep enhances growth hormone release which helps body to repair and partition fuel sources better- store less as fat and more in lean muscle tissue as glycogen do leads to leaner body

O – This is very interesting! I think when an average person talks about stress, they don’t exactly know what it means.

So lack of sleep influences some processes in the body?

N – Exactly. Lack of sleep influences every hormone cycle we have. In a cascade like fashion starting in the hypothalamus in the brain. It’s a huge convoluted web of interactions but all lead to the same outcomes. Many of which track our bodies into thinking they are starving so we look for energy rich food to make us feel better. This causes a positive feedback mechanism though… instead of switching off the hunger, the sugary fatty foods cause our non-starving bodies to enter into more stress, thereby increasing sugar hunting signals and leading to ever increasing stress. To stop this we must sleep to reset hormonal balance. 5-HTP may help some people when taken before bed

O – So if we are under-slept, but eat as normal (I believe some steel people like my mom can do this), nothing is going to happen?

N – True but you still won’t repair muscles as well therefore if this continues your training volume and intensity will decrease

O – So we overvalue the contribution of stress to fat gain? Stress/lack of sleep does not ‘slow down metabolism’, but make us eat more?

N – Yes exactly. However that’s kind of not entirely true because indirectly it does affect the number of calories burnt because we are less likely to move around, fidget etc if tired. Our non-exercise calorie burn decreases. Also, we generally feel colder because of less general movement

O – Oh yes! If we keep pushing training though, and do, say, HIIT, what happens?

N – You’ll not actually be doing HIIT as your body needs to be able to work to its max to do this. You’ll eventually get injured and the endorphin high from exercise will be lost. Cortisol will increase and stay high for longer preventing recovery, inhibiting sleep further and chronically leads to fat gain.

O – Interesting fact from the book ‘Hungry brain’ by Stephan Guyenet. Some people start eating more when psychologically stressed. Some don’t. Those who do not respond with big cortisol increase to psychological stress, do not overeat when stressed.

N – Interesting!

O – I thought it was all emotional eating. And as you said we not only overeat but also choose rewarding food.

N – Yes

O – The author also suggests that we store stress related fat around the waistline. For me it doesn’t sound persuasive, no solid references were given.

N – Generally, fat around mid section is most common as this is where most people have the most fat cells

O – So there is not enough evidence that stress related fat accumulates around the belly?

N – Not in my opinion

O – How to cope with stress induced cravings then? Being aware of where the cravings are coming from helps to prevent it. Right?

N – Yes I’d agree with that

O – Many people think ‘my body needs it’. It is true actually as rewarding food helps to decrease stress (Guyenet’s book says)

But we need to find other options: calling a friend, having a bubble bath, etc

N – Yes. But only because we have programmed our bodies this way

O – Easy to say. Programmed?

N – I was given a new pencil case as s child for a reward… this is my stress relief now… shopping!

O – When I am shopping I forget about food!

O – Bonus question: How many carbs do you eat?:)

N – lol I don’t count them

Fat loss expert, elite group fitness instructor and personal trainer based in Sheffield.