How Stress Can Stop Fat Loss and What to Do about It

Stress Fat Loss

We all get frazzled now and then – the job is hectic and stressful, we get stuck in traffic, the kids won’t stop screaming, there are bills to worry about. Whatever its cause, stress is an unavoidable part of life.

And while a slight dose of it can help you kick ass by increasing alertness, energy, and productivity, chronic stress wreaks havoc on your body.

An often-made claim is that stress prevents fat loss on a diet. But does stress really keep you from losing those love handles and that ugly belly bulge? 

In this article, you’ll discover the truth about the effects of stress on your figure. You’ll also learn how to cope with stress so that you can finally achieve that lean cover-model body you’re after. Let’s do this!

Does Stress Keep You Fat?

If you’ve been in the world of health and fitness for a while, I bet you’ve heard that stress causes fat gain, especially around your midsection.

Is that true? Well, the claim is based mainly on a misinterpretation of a study by Yale University, in which the researchers linked higher cortisol levels to more belly fat [1].

As a result, the media and weight loss “gurus” jumped to the conclusion that stress has you packing on unwanted kilops of fat.

The problem? This was an observational study, which means that results indicate correlation, not necessarily causation!

Just because two variables are correlated does not mean that one causes the other. Thereby, such a relation cannot be touted as scientific proof that stress causes fat gain.

In fact, a few years later, researchers found the complete opposite: a spike in cortisol actually helps you burn fat. The reason is that cortisol increases lipolysis – the scientific term for the breakdown of fat [2].

This rise in cortisol is one of the main reasons why fat burning increases during exercise, especially while doing cardio – it provides you with extra fuel.

Interesting to note, however, is that while cortisol increases fat oxidation, it tends to spare the fat around your stomach [3]. 

Here’s the Tricky Part

As we’ve seen, the “stress hormone” cortisol doesn’t cause weight gain in a direct manner. It even helps your organism break down body fat.

But here’s the thing: while cortisol doesn’t cause fat gain directly, having chronically elevated levels can wreak havoc on your body shape in an indirect manner. There are three reasons why. 

First off, stress increases appetite, especially for sweet food [4]. And after all, calorie balance ultimately determines changes to the number on your scale [5-7].

If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. But if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. 

Second, chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, which, in turn, can spur weight gain [8].

Third, elevated cortisol levels can cause water retention [9-10]. If you’ve ever been treated with hydrocortisone – the pharmaceutical form of cortisol – you’ll be well aware of this.

Stress and elevated cortisol levels make you hold onto fluids by increasing ADH, a hormone that controls the water balance in your body [11]. 

ADH works by signalling to your kidneys how much water to pump back into your body [10].

It Gets Even Worse

Not only can chronically elevated cortisol levels inflate your size in three indirect ways, but they can also sabotage your body in other respects.

For one, excess cortisol increases muscle breakdown [12-13]. Besides diminishing your strength and sex appeal, this also lowers your calorie output. The reason is that muscle mass is one of the main determinants of your metabolic rate [14]. 

As a result, muscle mass makes it harder to shape and maintain a lean figure all year round.

In addition, chronically elevated levels can cause high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, impaired mental health, and a compromised immune system [15-17].

Here’s What to Do

By now you know why chronically elevated stress levels affect your body shape and health. 

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to keep your cortisol levels under control. The following are six proven ways to maintain a balance in your stress hormone.

By implementing them into your daily life, you’ll not only make it easier to obtain and maintain a lean body, but your health and well-being will receive a boost as well.

1. Get Enough Sleep

We live in a fast-paced world. As a result, sleep often remains on the sidelines. 

But if you want to keep your health, body composition, and cortisol levels in an optimal state, getting enough sleep is crucial.

Research shows that the better you sleep, the more balanced your cortisol levels will be [18].

However, it’s not only the hours of sleep you get that are of importance – your sleeping routine counts as well. Shift workers and those with an irregular sleeping schedule have higher cortisol levels [19].

So, try to maintain a steady schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same times every day. 

2. Don’t Go Overboard with Caffeine

Contrary to the long-held belief, caffeine has many health benefits. It lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer [20-22].

Besides, caffeine boosts workout performance. It improves power output, aerobic and anaerobic exercise capacity, and focus while suppressing fatigue [23-27].

Great, right? But before you grab another cup of java, consider this: researchers found that caffeine increases cortisol in a dose-dependent manner [28].

In fact, 800 mg of caffeine pre-workout raised cortisol levels in professional rugby players by a whopping 44% [28]. So make sure you keep the amount under control. 

Another thing: avoid caffeine later in the afternoon because it can interfere with your sleep. And, as we’ve seen, a good night’s sleep is crucial for a balanced cortisol level.

3. Take Time to Relax

We live in a fast-moving world. Therefore, one of the best ways to keep your cortisol levels in balance is by slowing down.

There are various activities that are effective at slashing cortisol levels. Meditating and deep breathing exercises are two very powerful options [29-30]

You can also go for a massage, yoga, and relaxing music: these have shown to be effective as well [31-33]. 

4. Laugh

Always choose thrillers over comedies? If so, consider switching. Researchers found that when healthy men viewed a 60-minute humorous video, their cortisol levels plummeted [34].

Research by the Athens Medical School found similar results: laughter brings down your cortisol levels [35].

5. Supplement with Ashwagandha

If you’re looking for a natural supplement to balance your cortisol levels, an excellent option is ashwagandha – a herb that is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine. 

Ashwagandha is labelled an “adaptogen” – a term coined by Russian scientists to describe a herb that can help your body deal with stress.

And, according to the latest research, ashwagandha does that very well [36]. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that sixty days of 300mg of high-concentration ashwagandha extract lowered cortisol levels by 27% [37].

What’s the Bottom Line?

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. And while acute stress won’t have much of an effect on your figure, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body shape and health in many ways.

And that’s bad news since a poll by Lifeline Australia found that an alarming 91% of Australian adults feel stressed in one or more important areas of their life.

The three main ways in which chronic stress can wreck your figure is through increasing appetite, leading to insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, and causing water retention.

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to keep your cortisol levels in balance. Those include getting enough sleep, moderating caffeine consumption, taking the time to relax, laughing a lot, and supplementing with ashwagandha.


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