Stress and Weight Gain Without Overeating?

While it is true that increased stress can cause weight gain, a new study suggests this is not exclusively do to eating more. Within the study, researchers identified that it was possible chronic stress may increase the rate of new fat cell formation. The formation of fat cells and association with weight gain is all related to the levels of hormones which are called glucocorticoids. When patients are stressed, there is a high production rate of these hormones.

In cases of chronic stress when the glucocorticoids are continuously high, it can increase the possibility of some cells turning into fat cells. Mary Teruel, who is the senior author of the study and an assistant professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University suggests that this could actually be the cause of the weight gain.

It is a well-known fact that when we experience increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, it can cause a weight gain. However, it was assumed that people who were stressed out were simply eating more due to an increased appetite. With the question that the weight gain related to stress could be caused by something else, the researchers at Stanford studied the effects of glucocorticoids. These are steroid hormones which are produced in the adrenal gland of humans and mice.

When the hormone was kept at continuously high levels, the researchers saw through a microscope how the hormone caused an increased development of fat cells. Interestingly enough, when these levels would rise and fall, the researchers saw no impact. This outcome was even true when there were extremely high glucocorticoid levels for a short amount of time. The most substantial observation was found in the mice which were being studied. When they had a higher-than-normal glucocorticoid hormone levels for a 24-hour period, the researchers observed a noticeable doubling of fat. The findings were found to suggest that it was more about timing than the amount of food being consumed.

There are certainly differences between mice and humans, however, both are effected by the circadian rhythms and produce glucocorticoids in our response to stress. While the research was performed in a lab setting, it is safe to assume that the human body would react similarly with the continually elevated levels of glucocorticoids. The researchers agreed that additional experiments and data would be needed in order to prove this association.

The increased levels of fat are most likely associated with the fact that glucocorticoids fluctuate under normal circumstances along with our circadian clocks. As a result of this, our bodies will intentionally ignore when the fluctuations of these hormones are temporary. When these hormone levels remain high over long periods of time, this is not the case. One expert suggested that perhaps it is acceptable to be stressed during the day, but not in the evening. It would be ideal to find ways to manage and regulate stress especially in the evenings and at night, in order to avoid affecting a patient’s weight.

While there is a benefit to any method which helps reduce stress, there is a challenge in managing this for people who are constantly stressed. Popping into a quick workout class or meditating may not be sufficient in adequately reducing the stress at the end of the day. The experts of the study said that the type of activities which may help address this level of stress would require the patient’s complete attention, such as a focused game of tennis or basketball versus mindlessly running. Some activities, such as running, may be physically beneficial and healthy. However, these types of activities do not require our full attention or allow us to completely destress and unwind from the day.

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