In today’s society , we are constantly bombarded by stress from all angles. This list does not just include the ones inflicted from training but also encompasses external stressors such as work, relationships, environment… just to name a few.
In this article, we are going to touch on the basic endocrinology and why stress, if uncontrolled, will lead to fat gain rather than fat loss. Stress has gained quite a notorious reputation of late but the truth is, if managed well, it can be a great thing. The main function of stress is to challenge the body. This need to adapt and overcome is essential for the body to become stronger and more resilient. However, as observed more frequently, uncontrolled levels of stress creates huge implications to the body, such as inflammation. In turn, this can cause blood sugar problems, fat gain, toxicity and even poor energy balance.
To better understand the concepts of this article, there are 4 (endocrine) hormones which we need to cover. These hormones are cortisol, insulin, growth hormones and testosterone. These hormones are not only vital to fat loss but also play a big role in exploration of the correlation between stress and weight gain.
- Cortisol is a stress hormone that is primarily responsible for the breakdown of fuel, it is by itself an anti-inflammatory hormone.
- Insulin is a hormone that is present in an abundance of nutrients.
- Growth hormone is responsible for the conservation of glucose while promoting fatty acids as the primary source of fuel.
- Testosterone is a sex hormone that is responsible with muscle gain and the maintenance of muscle mass and it helps regulate metabolism.
Now, let’s begin to explore what happens when stress levels are unnecessarily elevated for chronic periods of time.The main issue with uncontrolled and chronic stress is that it ultimately causes a cascade of issues that heavily affect the 4 endocrine hormones mentioned.
Chronic Stress and Glucose Levels
First, let us explore how chronic stress has an impact on one’s glucose level.
Cortisol, (aka the stress hormone, that is known in the world of training to be a bad thing) is actually an ally. Especially during training as it helps to break down glucose and fatty acids for fuel. It also helps to regulate blood glucose throughout the day and is an anti-inflammatory compound.
Now, the problem comes when there is chronic stress without the need for this excess fuel. You may think of unneeded fuel storage as a champagne tower at a wedding. With muscles as the cup at the top, liver as the second layer and fats as the other layers.
Cortisol breaks down fuel to be released into the blood to be used as energy. If glucose isn’t being used by the body (and is inactive) the bloodstream will eventually reach a saturation point in blood glucose. The natural self-regulation of our bodies to balance blood sugar levels will cause insulin to be secreted to push excess glucose that is not utilised into the muscle, liver and fat cells. However, when the muscles don’t have any form of contractions, they actually do not need this excess fuel. This then spills over to the liver, but when it is also at its maximum capacity of intake this excess glucose will now spill into the fat cells.
This is where we can note one of the effects of the cascading effect of chronic stress on these endocrine hormones. As the two are opposing and we know that growth hormone aids in the utilisation of fat as fuel because of the secretion of insulin for blood glucose regulation, growth hormone production is halted.
Chronic Stress and the Thyroid
Chronic stress does not just affect the endocrine hormones but our thyroid as well. The thyroid gland is the main regulator of all metabolic processes in the body.
Now, let’s imagine the thyroid as the airport control tower and the operation of landing and taking off the planes as cells metabolism. If the tower control is down, no aeroplanes are able to take off or land. And this is exactly what happens when chronic stress ramps up in the body.
Chronic cortisol release directly impacts thyroid function as elevated levels of cortisol suppress the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Axis (HPA) reducing levels of thyroid stimulating hormone. As the main controller of metabolic functions in the body, once the thyroid hormone is impaired, you can expect fat loss to stall.
Cortisol and Free Testosterone
Testosterone is considered an anabolic hormone with multiple physiological functions. In males, testosterone is mainly produced and secreted from the Leydig cells of the testes. Testosterone is key in the growth and maintenance of skeletal muscle, bone, and red blood cells
Research has established there is a direct inhibitory effect of high doses of cortisol on testicular Leydig cell function, which results in a decrease in the production of testosterone.
And we know from the previous article, why having more muscle mass increases BMR and aids in fat loss in the long run.
Chronic Stress and Inflammation
Finally, we get down to inflammation. Now, here is where it gets a little tricky. As mentioned in the above article, we know cortisol to actually be anti-inflammatory.
Introducing: the glucocorticoid receptor. Glucocorticoids are essential for both maintenance of the state of rest (parasympathetic mode) and the stress response (Sympathetic mode). It is also critical in the treatment of disorders such as autoimmune and inflammatory response to name a few.
You may want to think of cortisol and glucocorticoid being 2 gates that close the water dam to prevent the flow of water outside of the dam. If the glucocorticoid receptor is not responsive anymore, cortisol has no gate to attach itself to and the water (which are the inflammatory components) will rush out and destroy everything in its path.
Under normal conditions, cortisol binds to the glucocorticoid receptor, which stops the release of inflammatory cells and that’s why it acts as an anti-inflammatory. Now, prolonged or excessive cortisol secretion may result in a compensatory down-regulation or resistance of the glucocorticoid receptor. This actually blocks cortisol binding, thereby causing an non stop influx of inflammation, which leads to impaired thyroid function.
You can see how cortisol is actually needed for daily functions and is an ally. The problems start to arise when we have chronic stress and the cascade of effects it has on the entire body.
We hope this article helped you understand the importance of controlling stress is not just for fat loss but to function on the daily. Building this foundation is also a key factor as we move on to our next topic, the best fat loss program, period.