Most people know that stress may lead to weight gain. What isn’t as well known is the physiological mechanism which occurs when we are stressed, that may lead to this effect.
In times of stress, a number of areas of the brain are driven to action. First, the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for emotional processes, sends a ‘distress call’ to the hypothalamus.1 The hypothalamus, otherwise known as the ‘command centre’ of the brain, is the area responsible for creating the ‘fight or flight’ response. This then instructs the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (more familiarly known as adrenaline).1 This response is ideal for times of short-term stress when we need a burst of extra energy, but what happens in times of prolonged stress?
This is where the hormone cortisol comes into play. When we feel stressed over extended periods - for example when we’re moving house or trying to close that important deal at work - the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol.1 The role of cortisol is to promote the release of glucose (sugars) and lipids (fats) into the blood to be utilised by our muscles;1 this was an essential function when we were hunters who needed to run for long periods chasing our food or running away from predators. However, our modern lifestyle is mostly sedentary in comparison to our ancestors, which means if we don't increase our physical activity levels, we are less efficient at clearing the excess cortisol, glucose and lipids from our system.
A rise in blood glucose stimulates the release of insulin; a hormone which promotes the uptake of glucose into the muscles to help regulate blood sugar. However it also plays a role in increasing fat storage. When the level of insulin in the blood is high, excess sugars in the blood are converted to a type of fat that is stored around organs (visceral fat).2 As well as increasing overall body fat, visceral fat is considered to be an unhealthy body fat with most experts recommending that we decrease our visceral fat by increasing physical activity and following a calorie controlled diet.
Certain herbs and compounds may help support the adrenal glands in times of stress by reducing cortisol levels in the body.3-5 Since it is the increase of cortisol that can lead to weight gain, reducing this hormone in conjunction with a calorie controlled diet and regular exercise may help you manage your weight in times of stress.
Herbs which may support the adrenal glands include:
- Withania somnifera3,4 (winter cherry)
- Magnolia officinalis5 (magnolia)
- Phellodendron amurense5 (phellodendron)
- Ocimum sanctum6 (holy basil)
- Panax quinquefolium and Panax ginseng7 (ginseng)
Speak to your healthcare practitioner for more information about supplementation. Make sure to always read the label and use only as directed. If symptoms persist, see your healthcare practitioner.
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- Seaward BL. Managing stress, 8th ed. Chapter 3. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2015.
- Bowen R. Physiologic effects of insulin. Viewed 28 July 2016, http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/endocrine/pancreas/insulin_phys.html
- Choudhary D, Bhattacharyya S, Langade D. Body-weight management in adults under chronic stress through treatment with Ashwagandha root extract: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med 2016; [Epub ahead of print].
- Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med 2012;34(3):255-262.
- Talbott SM, Talbott JA, Pugh M. Effect of Magnolia officianalis and Phellodendron amurense (Relora®) on cortisol and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects. J Inter Soc Sports Nutr 2013;10:37.
- Cohen MM. Tulsi - Ocimum sanctum: a herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Intergr Med 2014;5(4):251-259.
- Nocerino E, Amato M, Izzo AA. The aphrodisiac and adaptogenic properties of ginseng. Fitoterapia 2000;71 Suppl 1:S1-5.