Is Adrenal Fatigue Making You Gain Weight?

The relationship between stress and obesity is an important one to understand. We stress about our job, our finances, our family, our environment. But can all of that stress be detrimental to our health?

Understanding Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

The body reacts to all forms of stress — whether you are running from danger or stressed at work — in the same manner. Your brain perceives stress, and a chain reaction begins inside the body ultimately signaling your adrenal glands (tiny glands that sit on top of your kidneys) to produce a hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol — the "stress" hormone — sends the body into a “fight or flight” response to help it manage environmental stress. Imagine how you would respond to escape a burning building. Blood pressure goes up (you want more blood to get your muscles moving!), blood sugar increases (to feed your muscles), your pupils dilate and heart rate increases. When you are out of danger, your body begins to relax again.

This response is how our bodies survive. However, remember that your body elicits the same response whether the stress is physical or mental. So what happens when stress is more constant? What if you dread going to work every single day? Our bodies are adapted to respond to short bouts of stress followed by periods of rest and relaxation. But when periods of acute stress become chronic, the body can have difficultly continuously responding. The adrenal glands' ability to turn off cortisol production is broken because the stress never fully goes away. If you are stressed day in and day out — from work, family, money, etc. — your adrenal glands eventually start to wear out. They become fatigued.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue?

The different stages of adrenal fatigue range from sub-optimal function to complete exhaustion. While your cortisol levels will initially be high under lots of stress, as your adrenal glands become more fatigued, cortisol levels begin to dwindle because you run out of steam. Symptoms may include feeling tired, run down and overwhelmed. You may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up in the morning. You might experience sugar and/or salt cravings, headaches, anxiety or mood swings. Chronic stress can also suppress the immune system, so newly developed food intolerances, allergies or infections may emerge.

How can Adrenal Fatigue Lead to Weight Gain?

Cortisol increases caloric intake of energy-dense foods that will immediately support the body’s need for energy and increased blood sugar to survive environmental stress. Eating is a biochemical response to stress. However, with increased caloric intake of sugary, fatty junk food, our body begins laying down fat stores, primarily in our midsection. Increased central obesity is a direct risk factor for heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis and kidney disease. Chronically elevated cortisol can also begin to affect thyroid gland function.

How can Nutrition Help?

Different nutrition protocols are recommended based on the stage of adrenal dysfunction. A diet low in inflammatory foods such as sugar and refined carbohydrates is a good place to start. Additionally, a diet that allows your body to maintain blood sugar throughout the day — a balanced plate of smart carbohydrates, quality protein and healthy fats at every meal and snacks every 2-3 hours — is key. Additional supplementation depends on the individual. Vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium may be beneficial to supporting healthy adrenals. 

The bottom line is that it is important to support your adrenal glands with a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle that incorporates stress management in order to prevent stress-related obesity. 

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Amari Thomsen
Amari Thomsen, MS, RD is a nutrition scientist at Clif Bar & Company where she contributes her expertise to product innovation and nutrition communications. She is the author of "Idiot's Guides: Autoimmune Cookbook" and is based in San Francisco, California.