“Every day you hear about people struggling with arthritis, depression, insomnia, allergies, and indigestion, but the biggest problem that afflicts more people, are fatigue and weight gain. Those two ailments by far outdistance any other (health) problem.” – Dr. Len Lopez
The relationship between stress, adrenal fatigue, and weight gain is systematic. Picture a malfunctioning pinball machine that rapidly shoots the silvery ball between three bumpers without dropping the ball back into the slot. Tilting the table isn’t working. The only way to fix the machine is the diagnose the issue and break out your toolkit.
That (poorly analogized) pinball machine represents your metabolism. When playing pinball, it’s important to follow the ball once it hits the bumper – this isn’t always easy to do, as the ball is traveling quite fast. The same applies to the rapid, systematic relationship between stress, adrenal glands, and weight gain.
In this article, we’ll explain this relationship and the importance of adrenal glands in maintaining a healthy weight. We’ll also list a few signs that a faulty adrenal gland may be the culprit behind some added pounds.
The Stress Response
Let’s go back 40,000-plus years. Our distant Neanderthal ancestors were forced to contend with some serious hardships. Having lived during the ice age, they had to deal with some pretty harsh weather. Dastardly climate conditions, combined with a run-in or twelve with some less-than-friendly creatures, limited the average lifespan of the average Neanderthal to about 30 years old. It is proposed that we developed our fight-or-flight response during this period (more about this below.)
Our body will react to any physical or mental stress; whether we’re sprinting away from immediate danger or straining to finish our project on time. Our brain perceives this stress and initiates a chain reaction inside of the body. This chain reaction uses a pathway called the HPA axis – Hypothalamus (within the brain), the Pituitary gland (also in the brain), and Adrenal glands.
Adrenal glands are small, triangular-shaped glands that sit atop each kidney. Our adrenal glands are responsible for (among other things) the production of cortisol – a stress hormone. When cortisol is released, this signals the brain to go into a fight-or-flight response.
Unlike our Neanderthal cousins, we’re not prepping to tussle with some savage beast; yet, our brains have retained this evolutionary stress response – and many of the same physiological mechanisms that occur upon its activation. “As our bodies and minds have adapted and evolved to the changing times, the threats have become less obvious – and sometimes they aren’t even real. Today, our body can react to even perceived or imagined threats,” states Dr. John M. Grohol.
Stress and Adrenal Fatigue
When we’re under constant stress, our adrenal glands kick into overdrive in an attempt to produce enough cortisol to deal with the “threats.” While our body is well-equipped to handle short-term stressors, long-term exposure suppresses the body’s normal stress response – including those of the adrenal glands. More specifically, an important “shut down” mechanism of the adrenal glands (initiated by the brain) is impaired. This can result in a condition known as Adrenal Fatigue.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:
– Mild depression or anxiety
– Lethargy and lack of energy
– More effort needed to complete tasks
– Less ability to handle stress
– Dry or thinning skin
– New or worsening allergy symptoms
– Sugar or salt cravings
– Cognition problems (such as “brain fog”)
– Decreased libido
Adrenal Fatigue and Weight Gain
(Please do not overlook the importance of the abovementioned information – as we consider it essential to understanding the mechanisms of stress-related weight gain.)
Okay, now it’s time to delve into the real issue at hand: is adrenal fatigue causing you to gain weight? Here are some signs that the condition is present and is producing added pounds:
1. You have had high stress levels for a long time.
As mentioned, chronic stress may induce a response that impairs adrenal gland function. To deduce whether or not any weight gain is a byproduct of Adrenal Gland Fatigue, you must first determine whether you have Adrenal Gland Fatigue. The first step is to evaluate the degree and duration of your exposure to stress.
2. You regularly crave sugar or salty foods.
“Stress eating” often involves the consumption of sugar or salt-laden foods. Sugar cravings are the direct result of a blood sugar imbalance, which is the product of sudden blood sugar crashes. The telltale signs of a blood sugar crash are simultaneous feelings of hunger and irritability. Salt cravings are caused by the insufficient delivery of sodium to the adrenal glands.
3. Fat is unevenly stored in the midsection.
As the caloric intake of sugary and fatty food increases, someone with Adrenal Gland Fatigue will notice a disproportionately pudgier tummy. The reason is that belly fat hastens the breakdown of fatty acids, which can be delivered to the liver quicker than other areas of the body.
4. There’s a family history of Metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome (MetS) is a medical term used to describe a set of certain conditions. Among these conditions are “increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels – that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Metabolic syndrome is linked to cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. MetS “has a significant genetic component,” and is linked to Adrenal Fatigue.
5. You have a thyroid condition
Elevated cortisol levels over an extended period may lead to thyroid gland disorders. A thyroid disorder can range from a goiter to cancer. The most common thyroid problems are hyperthyroidism (overproduction of thyroid hormones) and hypothyroidism (underproduction of thyroid hormones). A connection has been discovered between thyroid conditions and Adrenal Fatigue.
Carnahan, J. M.D. (2015, May 17). Signs You Might Have Adrenal Fatigue. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://www.jillcarnahan.com/2015/05/17/signs-you-might-have-adrenal-fatigue/
Grohol, J. (2012). What’s the Purpose of the Fight or Flight Response?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 13, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/04/whats-the-purpose-of-the-fight-or-flight-response/
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2016, March 19). Metabolic syndrome. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/metabolic-syndrome/home/ovc-20197517
Stancakova, A., & Laakso, M. (2014). Genetics of metabolic syndrome [Abstract]. Reviews in endocrine & metabolic disorders, 15(4), 243-252. doi:10.1007/s11154-014-9293-9
Thomsen, A., M.S., R.D., L.D.N., (2014, April 29). Is Adrenal Fatigue Making You Fat? Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://www.katheats.com/is-adrenal-fatigue-making-you-fat
WebMD. (2017). Understanding Thyroid Problems – the Basics. Retrieved May 13, 2017, from http://www.webmd.com/women/guide/understanding-thyroid-problems-basics#1
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