Why the weight won’t come off: The gut-stress-fat connection

American’s are packing on the pounds in record numbers — and it’s not just burgers and ice cream doing it.

There are factors at work triggering the trend toward obesity that even the most careful dieters among us may not be aware of — or know how to do anything about.

But when it comes to obesity, here is what we do know for sure:

  1. Obesity leads to elevated risk of mortality, making it the second leading preventable cause of death in the US (just behind tobacco).
  2. Obesity is associated with a high prevalence of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
  3. Both stress and high fat diets can alter the gut microbiota and contribute to obesity.
  4. Stress hormone cortisol corresponds with higher body mass index and waist circumference.

So we’ve got to get a grip on it… or it appears our health is doomed.

Just in time, several new studies may show clearly how stress and emotions directly contribute to obesity through the release of stress hormones and changes in gut health.

Study 1 – Stress, microbiota and obesity in mice

Researchers at Brigham Young University conducted a study on mice examining the interrelationships between obesity, stress, gut microbiota and mood disorders.

For the study, they induced obesity in mice with a high fat diet and then utilized a “chronic unpredictable mild stress protocol” to keep the mice under stress. They looked at the composition of gut microbiota in relation to obesity, diet, stress and gender. The results revealed distinct gender differences I how obesity and stress impact mood disorders like anxiety and the gut microbiota.

While the male mice became more anxious and less physically active, in female mice, stress caused the gut microbiota of the slender female mice to closely resemble that of the obese mice. In other words, for women, stress placed almost as much of a burden on digestive health (metabolism) as a poor diet.

Study 2 – Stress, cortisol and obesity in humans

A study published in the journal Obesity, examined associations between hair cortisol concentrations and adiposity in 2,527 men and women participating in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

They found that high levels of cortisol in the hair was correlated with elevated weight and waist circumference. Hair cortisol levels were also positively associated with the persistence of obesity evaluated in retrospect over 4 years.

Countering stress is key

Stress leads to binge eating or emotional eating and poor food choices, which leads to weight gain. Stress also causes cortisol to be released which, if left at elevated levels, causes increase in waist circumference and obesity.

The “fight or flight” response to stress was good in ancient times. It saved our lives by boosting glucose levels to prepare to run or fight. The problem is, with today’s chronic stress workplace and home life, the stress remains and the elevated glucose causes insulin to rise which causes your body to store fat. If you can’t reduce stress, you may not be able to lose weight as the fat stores will keep increasing.

What to do

Above all else, embrace a healthy diet with more fiber and alive foods, and less processed grains and sugars. This can help you get and maintain a healthier gut — now essential, we see, for effective weight loss. Then, work on your stress…

The best ways to reduce stress are to allocate some “me time” each day for self-care. During this time you can sit in quiet meditation, read a book, listen to relaxing music, do some art; whatever it is that helps you relax your mind and body.

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Try taking an adaptogenic herbal supplement. Adaptogens have the unique ability to ‘adapt’ and protect us against all types of stressors — physical, emotional, chemical and biological. You can read up on some adaptogens in the articles The herb that helps you get your groove back and 3 powerful adaptogen herbs that boost immunity.

You also need to exercise to burn through those stress hormones and metabolize fats and sugars from poor diet and the cortisol – glucose – insulin loop. But the wrong kind of exercise can backfire by producing more cortisol. Short intense bouts of high intensity interval training (HIIT) are good. Long intense bouts of high intensity interval training begin to increase cortisol levels.

You need to find a way to sleep 7-8 hours per night. This is the time when your body repairs cellular damage, produces serotonin, and metabolizes stress hormones. Lack of sleep is also associated with obesity. If you are having trouble, consider melatonin. In addition to helping you sleep better naturally, melatonin is reported to be antiaging and disease-fighting.

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.