How Stress Can Make You Gain Weight

Published: March 6, 2013

We live in a society where being overweight is epidemic. It is much easier to lose weight and keep it off however, when you understand that there are many things that contribute to this problem. Most of us are familiar with the more common ones.

  • The standard American diet (SAD), which contains excessive sugar and fat. In addition, food processing results in the loss of even more vitamins and minerals, resulting in "high calorie malnutrition." It is quite possible that this is the first time in the history of the human race that this has occurred. Being nutritionally deficient in numerous vitamins and minerals is one of many causes of excessive food cravings. Unfortunately, it is hard to get adequate nutrition out of the American diet, even if one's diet is relatively healthy.
  • Lack of exercise. During most of human history, people had to walk if they wanted to get somewhere. In addition, work often consisted of physical labor. This is no longer the case. In fact, we even seem to get upset if we can't get a parking space right near the entrance of the mall.
  • For many people, simply altering their diet and increasing their exercise is enough to let them lose weight. A large percentage of us however, have found that it is impossible to lose weight and keep it off no matter what we do. This article is for all of those readers.

So why is it impossible for us to lose weight and keep it off?

There are a number of ways that stress is contributing to our inability to lose weight. Fortunately, understanding these can help us overcome this problem. Both physical stresses (e.g. infections, nutritional deficiencies, toxic chemical exposures) and emotional/situational stresses (having a toxic boss, working too hard without enough sleep, worrying) can result in a metabolic chain reaction which results in weight gain. Interestingly, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia (CFS/FMS) are good models for the occurrence of weight gain during stress. These syndromes are characterized by exhaustion, achiness, brain fog and insomnia. Our research has shown that the average weight gain in these patients is 32 pounds. Fortunately, our research has also shown that 91 percent of these patients can be treated effectively.*

So what is going on in CFS/FMS?

I do not view these syndromes as the enemy. Rather, I see them as attempts on the body's part to protect itself from further harm and damage in the face of any of a number of toxic situations. A simple way to look at fibromyalgia and CFS would be to view them as circuit breakers in a house. When certain systems are overstressed, some of the circuit breakers will go off to prevent damaging the home's wiring. In milder cases, the circuit breakers can come back on and systems can return to healthy function by simply supplying the body with rest and proper nutrition. In CFS/FMS, however, it is as if the main circuit breaker (in this situation it's the hypothalamus—a master gland in the brain) has turned off. When this occurs, rest is no longer enough to restore proper function.

Despite the many diverse stresses that can cause these syndromes, most patient's symptoms seem to come from a common end point—dysfunction or suppression of the hypothalamus. This gland controls sleep, hormonal function, temperature regulation and the autonomic nervous system (e.g. blood pressure, blood flow and movement of food through the bowel). This is why these patients can't sleep, have low body temperatures and are prone to multiple and recurrent infections (because poor sleep causes immune dysfunction). The hypothalamic dysfunction by itself can therefore cause most of the symptoms we listed above. In addition, I suspect that problems with the mitochondria (the "energy furnaces" in the cells) are also present and are what cause the hypothalamic suppression.

So how does this lead to the weight gain?

This process contributes to weight gain in several ways. These include poor sleep. The expression "getting your beauty sleep" actually has a basis in fact. Deep sleep is a major trigger for growth hormone production. Growth hormone stimulates production of muscle (which burns fat) and improves insulin sensitivity (which decreases the tendency to make fat). The other two main triggers for growth hormone production are exercise and sex. In fact, a study showed that people who have sex at least three times a week look 10 years younger than those who don't. The study notes that this is because of the increase in growth hormone release. Oddly enough, getting the eight to nine hours of sleep a night that the human body is meant to have can powerfully contribute to our staying young and trim.

Why do you say that the human body is meant to have eight to nine hours of sleep a night?

One hundred years ago the average American got nine hours of sleep a night. This means that as many people had 10 hours of sleep a night as got eight hours. If you ask anthropologists, they will tell you that the average night's sleep 5000 years ago was 11 to 12 hours a night. When the sun went down, it was dark, boring and dangerous outside—so people went to sleep. They woke up at sunrise and the average time from sunset to sunrise is 12 hours a day.

As candles and torches became more common, people went down to the nine hours a night. When light bulbs, followed by radios, televisions and computers were developed, the average night's sleep went down to the current six or seven hours. This is simply not adequate for health and contributes to much of the chronic pain, fatigue and general poor vitality seen in this country. Sadly, not getting adequate sleep can then actually trigger insomnia so that people are not able to sleep.

How else does stress contribute to weight gain?

As we noted above, the hypothalamic "circuit breaker" that gets suppressed with stress also controls our hormone system. This results in inadequate levels of thyroid hormone (which acts as our body's gas pedal) and adrenal hormone. The blood tests that we currently use are notoriously unreliable in picking up thyroid and adrenal deficiencies. This is discussed at length in my book From Fatigued to Fantastic! We noted over a decade ago that every few years the tests and their normal range are modified to result in millions more people (who previously had been told by their doctors that they were crazy or that there's nothing wrong with them) being diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

This happened again last November when the American Academy of Clinical Endocrinology changed the normal range for the TSH blood test in a way that resulted in 13 million more Americans having hypothyroidism. As always, they think that now we finally have them all. Unfortunately, even with this new change, many millions of Americans who suffer with hypothyroidism still have normal blood tests. In addition, the most common medication used to treat hypothyroidism (Synthroid) is ineffective or inadequately effective in a large percent of patients. As long as your thyroid function is inadequate, it will be near impossible for you to keep your weight down.

So how can I tell if I need thyroid hormone?

The symptoms of hypothyroidism are fatigue, weight gain, cold intolerance with low body temperature (under 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), achiness and poor mental function. You don't have to have all of these. Having even a few of these symptoms is enough to justify a therapeutic trial of thyroid hormone. The form that I recommend is Armour thyroid, and it should be adjusted to the dose that feels best while keeping the Free T4 blood test in the normal range. I do not recommend using the TSH blood test to monitor therapy as it often results in patients being under treated. Although this approach is controversial, hundreds, if not thousands, of doctors are using it, as they find it to be highly effective.

What other hormone problems are contributing to the weight gain?

The adrenal gland is the body's stress handler. If you think back to school, they used to teach about what is called the "fight or flight We set off the fight or flight reaction dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day. reaction." In times of stress, the adrenal gland would release cortisol and adrenaline. This might occur every few weeks when we saw a saber tooth tiger or an enemy. It would then have plenty of time to recover. Nowadays, however, we set off the fight or flight reaction dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day. This can result in exhaustion of the adrenal gland.

Since it is the job of the adrenal gland to maintain blood sugar levels in the time of stress, adrenal exhaustion can result in episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). If you get periods where you feel like somebody had better feed you now or you're going to kill them, you are likely hypoglycemic and would benefit from adrenal support. Other symptoms of inadequate adrenal function include emotionally and physically crashing during stress, low blood pressure and dizziness when first standing. Unfortunately, people crave sugar and eat more than they normally would when they get hypoglycemic. This leads to further weight gain.

What else is contributing to the weight gain?

Clinical experience has shown that fungal (also known as Candida or yeast) overgrowth contributes powerfully to both sugar cravings and weight gain. Although we do not know the mechanism for this, we have repeatedly seen that excess weight drops off once this overgrowth is treated and eliminated. The main causes of fungal overgrowth are excess sugar intake and antibiotic use. Yeast grows by fermenting sugar and requires an area that is warm, dark and moist. This means that the gut is an ideal environment for fungal overgrowth. As the American diet adds approximately 150 pounds of sugar per person per year beyond what used to be in the diet hundreds of years ago, it is easy to see how this would become a problem. To look at it a bit more graphically, soda has approximately one teaspoon of sugar per ounce. Think about what happens to the yeast in their gut when people go to the local convenience store and get one of the 64-ounce "big burps."

The main symptoms of yeast overgrowth are chronic sinusitis and spastic colon (gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation). If you have these, you probably have fungal overgrowth. The good news is that treating this will not just help you to lose weight but can relieve spastic colon and sinusitis. How can I go about treating these problems so that I can lose weight and feel better?
Cut down the sugar and simple carbohydrates (e.g. potatoes, bread and pasta) in your diet and increase your water intake. Do not count glasses of water—that is a very annoying way to spend the day. Instead, simply check in with your mouth and see if it is dry. If it is, you are thirsty and need to drink water. We sometimes confuse thirst with hunger and this leaves us eating more than we really need. Get optimum nutritional support. When you are deficient in vitamins or minerals, your body will crave more food than you need and your metabolism will be sluggish. To keep it simple and avoid the need to take tablets all day, I recommend that you use "The Energy Revitalization System" by Enzymatic Therapy. One scoop of a good-tasting powder plus one capsule replaces about 35 tablets of supplements a day and will leave you feeling great. It is available from most health food stores.

  • Sleep. Get eight to nine hours of solid sleep a night. If you have insomnia, herbals can help. I recommend "Revitalizing Sleep Formula" (by Enzymatic Therapy): one to four capsules an hour before bedtime. This is a mix of six herbals and is the most effective natural sleep aid available.
  • Thyroid. If you are also tired and have cold intolerance or achiness, ask your holistic doctor for a prescription of Armour Thyroid. Adjust to the dose that feels best while keeping the Free T4 blood test in the normal range. Forinstructions on adjusting the dose.*
  • Exercise. Find something that is fun and feels good. It also helps to have a regularly scheduled time three to four times a week where you meet a friend to exercise. Otherwise, human nature is to make excuses not to show up.
  • Yeast treatments. If you have chronic sinusitis or spastic colon, there is a good chance you have fungal/yeast overgrowth in your bowels. Avoid sugar (stevia is a great substitute and the best tasting one is by Body Ecology™). Take Acidophilus Pearls™ (healthy milk bacteria to combat yeast—this is the only brand I recommend): two pearls twice a day. If you have a holistic physician, ask him or her for a prescription for nystatin and Diflucan.*
  • Adrenal stress support. Start by making an attitude change. Whenever you notice that you're getting anxious or worried, ask yourself the simple question, "Am I in imminent danger?" The answer is almost always no and you'll find that your adrenal glands relax as you realize this. If you have problems with relaxing or letting go of worry, my new book Three Steps to Happiness!—Healing through Joy can help you get from where you are to a life that you love. If you are experiencing hypoglycemic episodes, consider taking an adrenal glandular. I recommend Adrenal Stress Free, one to two capsules each morning, as needed.
  • Metabolic therapies. If you are still having weight problems, the best proven way to stimulate metabolism is with a combination of bitter orange (like ephedrine but safer), green tea, 100 mg caffeine (more is worse, not better) and a baby aspirin (or willow bark) each morning. Many products have this combination. As you may have noticed, I recommend Enzymatic Therapy products a lot because their quality is superb. They make an excellent weight loss product called Escalation. Do not use any of these products if you have heart problems or high blood pressure. Add one baby aspirin or willow bark to the Escalation.
  • It is no longer necessary to be on extreme, unsustainable or unhealthy diets to lose weight and keep it off. The recommendations above will not just help you stay trim but they will leave you healthy and full of vitality as well.
Jacob Teitelbaum, MD

is one of the world's leading integrative medical authorities on fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. He is the lead author of eight research studies on their effective treatments, and has published numerous health & wellness books, including the bestseller on fibromyalgia From Fatigued to Fantastic! and The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution. His newest book (June 10, 2024) is You Can Heal From Long COVID. Dr. Teitelbaum is one of the most frequently quoted fibromyalgia experts in the world and appears often as a guest on news and talk shows nationwide including Good Morning America, The Dr. Oz Show, Oprah & Friends, CNN, and Fox News Health.

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