Friday, February 19, 2010

Why Stress Makes Us Fat?

This is the transcript from my recent podcast on the tendency of chronic stress (and cortisol overexposure and general metabolic imbalance) to lead to abdominal obesity (too much belly fat and the resulting diabetes). Take a listen to the podcast HERE - or read the transcript below.

Hi, this is Dr. Shawn Talbott – and I want to welcome you to another podcast

Today, I’m going to talk about “Why stress makes us fat” and also about two of the most common New Years Resolutions that are made every year – the first being to “lose some weight” (or get fit or a similar fitness oriented goal) and the second being to “reduce stress” (or get organized or something else related to helping us feel better and be happier). What I want to focus on today is the idea that achieving a completely different goal might be the way for you to get it all – and finally lose weight and reduce stress and feel better all at the same time. The way you achieve all of this is by working to restore biochemical balance in your body – because it’s that biochemical balance that is upset by stress and it’s that upset balance that leads to weight gain, depression, fatigue, mental fog, and general burnout that we’re all trying to turn around. But, we simply can’t turn anything around until we first restore biochemical balance within our body – and that’s what I’ll talk about in this podcast.

Whenever I lecture about the detrimental health effects of stress, and especially its effects on weight gain, I start off my seminars by asking members of the audience three simple questions:

1.Got stress? Of course you do! That’s strike one.

2.How about sleep—do you get less than eight solid hours of restful sleep every night? Yes? Strike two.

3.What about your diet—are you among the millions of people who are actively dieting or concerned about what you eat? Yes? Strike three.

As you might imagine, most people have three strikes. In our fast-paced, hurry-hurry, twenty-first-century world, almost of all of us are stressed out, sleep deprived, and hyper-concerned about our diet and food choices. Because of this chronic stress, unfortunately, most of us are also fat. At last count, national health statistics pegged two out of three Americans (65 percent of us) as overweight or obese – but even more of us (up to 90% by some measures) fall into a category of people who are Tired, Stressed, and Depressed. The interesting thing for me (as a nutritional biochemist) is that being overweight and being stressed/depressed share some of the same biochemical – or hormonal patterns.

The reason for failure at your previous weight loss attempts really comes down to one primary cause—stress. Stressed-out people eat more (and eat more junk). Stressed-out people have more belly fat (and more diabetes as a result). Stressed-out people exercise less—mostly because they are “time-stressed” and feel they have no time for exercise. Stressed-out people are constantly tired during the day—and yet they can’t relax enough to get a good night of sleep. Stressed-out people also have more heart attacks, more depression, more colds, and less sex. I cannot think of a more dismal picture—and stress is at the root of it.

How is it that something as simple as stress can cause so many problems—from depression to heart disease to weight gain? The reason is because a chronic stress response, such as the one we mount every day when faced with deadlines, traffic, money concerns, family conflicts, irritating coworkers, and other worries, causes an immediate and profound change in a variety of hormones and enzymes and neurotransmitters and other naturally occurring chemicals in our bodies.

For many years, we used to focus primarily on one stress hormone, cortisol, because it is thought of as the “primary” stress hormone. Now, however, we know that although cortisol is still important to consider, it is clearly only one part of the hormonal and metabolic response to stress and weight gain that involves a complex interplay between cortisol with another hormone (testosterone) and with a fat-storing enzyme (HSD) and with neurotransmitters including dopamine and norepinephrine.

That interplay goes something like this:

1.Stress increases cortisol exposure, which in most people leads to increased appetite and abdominal weight gain.

2.Increased cortisol reduces testosterone levels in men and women, leading to a loss of sex drive and muscle mass and an increase in fatigue and body fat.

3.Some people with high stress do not have high levels of cortisol in their blood, but they can still gain weight because of high cortisol levels within their fat cells. Fat cells contain an enzyme, called HSD (or hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase), that increases cortisol levels within the cell as a way to encourage more fat storage (even when cortisol levels in the blood remain normal).

Like many complex problems, the solution is actually not all that complicated—and it looks like this:

1.The “eat less and exercise more” approach to weight loss has failed.

2.Stress makes you fat.

3.Maintain hormonal balance between cortisol (both outside and inside cells) and testosterone.

How can I make such a bold claim—that the solution to the weight-loss puzzle is as simple as three little sound bites? Because for the past six years, hundreds of people in my nutrition clinic and hundreds of thousands of people who have read my books, or read interviews with me in magazines and newspapers, and seen or heard my appearances on television and radio have realized dramatic benefits with my approach to weight-loss. My program has been presented at some of the most prestigious scientific research conferences in the world, including the American College of Nutrition, the International Society for Sports Nutrition, Experimental Biology, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Obesity Society.

Our weight-loss breakthrough came when we realized that we had been concentrating our efforts too narrowly on controlling cortisol levels in the blood (outside of fat cells) and ignoring the fact that cortisol levels inside of fat cells might still be too high. By naturally controlling the activity of the fat-storing HSD enzyme within fat cells, we could also control cortisol levels within fat cells and thus remove a potent fat-storage signal. When we combined this inside/outside approach to cortisol control with a natural rebalancing of testosterone levels, magic happened in terms of weight loss, but also in terms of how people felt – with better mood, higher energy levels, and sharper mental focus. As a scientist, I think it’s interesting that this so-called “magic” was nothing of the sort, but rather was a very precise approach to balancing normal biochemistry and metabolism. Our approach appeared magical to our participants because they felt great, the plan was easy to follow, and it worked like nothing they had ever tried before. As the scientist and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke so famously stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—a statement that drives me to constantly advance our biochemical approach to weight loss and feeling better so I can keep the “magic” happening for people.

Don’t get me wrong here: Proper diet and regular exercise are still important pieces of the weight-loss and feel-good puzzle, but they are not the only considerations. We also need to consider the brain (in terms of sleep, stress, mood) and hormone levels (in terms of cortisol and testosterone and compounds that aren’t technically hormones) if we want the most complete approach to truly effective weight loss. How many people try to “eat right” and “exercise more”—and yet still gain weight? Millions! The missing pieces of the puzzle for most people are stress control and biochemical balance—and adding those pieces has made all the difference in the world for participants in our programs over the years. After six years of tracking results, we have a 91 percent completion rate, when typical weight-loss programs are lucky to achieve 50 percent. Our participants don’t just lose weight; they lose significant amounts of body fat, and they feel great doing it because they’re learning to control the hormones that have made them hungry, fat, tired, and depressed.

You have to feel good to stay on a “diet.” If it’s a chore, then you quit—simple as that. Our program reduces depression by 52 percent, reduces fatigue by 48 percent, and boosts overall feelings of well-being by 22 percent (so you feel like a million bucks instead of feeling terrible like you do with every other weight loss plan you’ve tried). Not only do our participants lose body fat, but they also maintain their muscle mass—so they avoid the common drop in metabolic rate (and subsequent weight gain) seen with other weight-loss programs.

I feel very strongly—in fact, I am certain—that once you understand the relationship between modern stressors, your biochemical balance, and their effects on your long-term health, you will be motivated to do something about getting your metabolism back into balance.

Please visit for more information about achieving and maintaining biochemical balance. I’m Dr. Shawn Talbott – and thanks for listening to the Wisdom of Balance podcast – see you next time.


Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D.

Nutritional Biochemist and Author

Follow me on Twitter

Follow me on LinkedIn

Follow me on Facebook

-Killer at Large - an award-winning documentary exploring the causes and solutions underlying the American obesity epidemic (

-The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott, Williams & Wilkens) -

-Cortisol Control and the Beauty Connection - The All-Natural Inside-Out Approach to Reversing Wrinkles, Preventing Acne, And Improving Skin Tone (Hunter House) -

-Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living (Chronicle Publishers - Currant Books)

-The Cortisol Connection - Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health (Hunter House) -

-The Cortisol Connection Diet - The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House) -

-A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements - an Outstanding Academic Text of 2004 (Haworth Press) -

No comments: