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10 Ways Stress Makes You Fat and Diabetic


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In the first part of this series on diabesity and metabolic syndrome, we “got under the hood” to look at the underlying mechanisms of both obesity and diabetes. We’ve now moved on to discussing the environmental and lifestyle risk factors that drive these conditions. In the last article we learned about the top 3 dietary causes of diabesity. In this article, we’re going to see how stress can independently cause both obesity and diabetes.

A huge – and I mean huge – amount of research over the past two decades shows that stress causes both obesity and diabetes in a variety of ways. Studies also show that stress makes it hard to lose weight. This is one reason why some people just can’t seem to lose weight no matter how well they eat or how much they exercise. I believe stress is one of the most important – yet most often ignored – factors driving the diabesity epidemic.

Stress Is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

Hans Selye, the famous physiologist who coined the term “stress”, defined it this way:

…the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.

The prominent psychologist Richard Lazarus offers a similar definition:

…any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual…

Most people only think of psychological stress when they hear the term “stress”. When asked what causes stress, they might say things like losing a job, having a fight with your spouse, driving in traffic or getting audited by the IRS.

While it’s true that psychological challenges like this are major stressors, what many people don’t realize is that stress is also caused by physiological challenges, such as:

  • insomnia
  • chronic infections
  • inflammation
  • autoimmune disease
  • environmental toxins
  • dieting
  • too much exercise

Even if your levels of psychological stress are pretty low, any of the conditions listed above can provoke a chronic stress reaction in your body. And as we’ll see in the next section, chronic stress can make you both fat and diabetic.

10 Ways Stress Makes You Fat and Diabetic

When stress becomes chronic and prolonged, the hypothalamus is activated and triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is normally released in a specific rhythm throughout the day.

It should be high in the mornings when you wake up (this is what helps you get out of bed and start your day), and gradually taper off throughout the day (so you feel tired at bedtime and can fall asleep).

Recent research shows that chronic stress can not only increase absolute cortisol levels, but more importantly it disrupts the natural cortisol rhythm. And it’s this broken cortisol rhythm that wreaks so much havoc on your body. Among other effects, it:

Each one of these consequences alone could make you fat and diabetic, but when added together they’re almost a perfect recipe for diabesity.

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Our Bodies Aren’t Made for Chronic Stress

One of the reasons chronic stress is so destructive is that our bodies didn’t evolve to deal with it. We’re set up to handle short-term, acute stress fairly well. In paleolithic times, this might have been caused by getting chased by a lion or hunting for our next meal. In fact, this type of stress may even be beneficial for our bodies because it improves our ability to react to the challenges of life.

What we’re not adapted for, however, is the chronic, unrelenting stress that has become so common in modern life. This type of stress provokes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness – what psychologists call a “defeat response”. And it’s the defeat response that leads to increased fat storage, abdominal obesity, tissue breakdown, suppression of the immune system, and all of the other effects I listed above that directly cause obesity and diabetes.

A Closer Look at Insomnia, Dieting and Exercise

I’d like to take a closer look at three often stressors that can make us fat and diabetic: insomnia, dieting and exercise.

More than a third of American suffer from insomnia, with 42 million prescriptions for sleeping medications filled in 2007. Several studies show that sleep deprivation elevates cortisol and makes it more likely that you’ll get fat and develop diabetes.

A very recent paper showed that restricting sleep to 5 hours a night for just one week significantly reduces insulin sensitivity. Another study earlier this year showed that even one night of sleep loss increased appetite in young, healthy adults. Sleep restriction is associated with impairment of carbohydrate tolerance, and research has shown that a loss of 3 hours of sleep each night causes a weight gain of 4-5%.

It’s estimated that between 50-60% of Americans are dieting at any given time. That’s a huge number. And while it may seem counter-intuitive that dieting contributes to obesity and diabetes, it makes perfect sense when you understand that dieting is a stressor that disrupts our cortisol rhythm.

A 2001 study showed that “cognitive dietary restraint” (translation: stressing about food or doing overly restrictive diets) raises your cortisol levels. Studies have also shown that caloric restriction – as is common in low-fat diets – increases cortisol levels. And a recent study reported on by Stephan Guyenet at Whole Health Source found that caloric restriction is especially harmful when combined with sleep deprivation.

Finally, although not common in the general population, too much exercise can also predispose you to weight gain and diabetes by raising cortisol levels, breaking down muscle tissue and increasing fat storage. This is especially true if cortisol levels are already elevated or disrupted by other stressors like gut infections, insomnia, food toxins or psychological factors.

It’s not uncommon (in the paleo/fitness subculture, at least) to encounter someone who eats well and exercises their brains out, but cannot lose weight.

In fact, several of my patients fall into this category. They are often surprised when I tell them they need to exercise less if they want to lose weight and recover their health. What they may not realize is that cortisol is a catabolic hormone. It breaks the body down.

While this might sound like a good thing for those trying to lose weight, it’s not. Muscle tissue is metabolically active and actually helps us lose weight. A reduction of lean muscle tissue may drop a few pounds in the short-term, but it will predispose you to weight gain in the future by impairing your metabolism. (This is another reason why caloric restricted diets, which break down muscle tissue, don’t work in the long-term and even make things worse.)

So if you’re struggling with weight or blood sugar control, don’t diet, get plenty of sleep and take it easy with exercise. You’ll be a lot better off.

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  1. Talbot, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health, and What You Can Do About It. Hunter House. 2007. pp. 85-86
  2. Talbot, Shawn. The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health, and What You Can Do About It. Hunter House. 2007. pp. 85-86


Join the conversation

  1. I am wondering if I have Cushing’s. 4 blood tests and all came back higher than normal. Have all the weight around mid-section. Have a low thryoid. My blood sugar went up, my whole life I have been low blood sugar. My family doctor gave up, next week I see an endocronigilst. Does anyone know anything?? Cannot loose weight no matter what I do. Been on 1200 calorie diet, in 4 months lost 2 pounds, think its water.

    • Have you ever considered going to a naturopath? You might have candida overgrowth and need to do a cleanse. This sounds exactly like what my mom went through for YEARS! But she dropped 35 pounds in 4 months after cleaning her gut of bad bacteria. Google Solutions 4 products and read up. You may also have a gluten/casein sensitivity. Consuming dairy has a rep for weight gain.

  2. You came so close but didnt mention Cushings Syndrome and Pseudo-Cushing’s Syndrome. Both of these are cortisol-driven diseases that are potentially lethal, and the symptoms of them are much like what you’ve described. Excess cortisol actually causes insomnia, weight gain, upper back fat and diabetes–to name a few. Anyone who has gained a lot of unexplainable weight should see a Cushings specialist to rule it out. A regular endocrinologist won’t recognize it even if it bits him on the face. Cushings can be caused by cancer, adrenal tumors or most commonly a tiny tumor in three pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

  3. I know this is an old post but I just have to comment to say thanks. I love all your research Chris, it has been life changing for me. This post has also been the one to finally convince me to stop working out so much and to sleep more. I am the person with excellent nutrition and I work so hard in the gym and my weight keeps going up, and no it isn’t muscle. I should look shredded right now and I just look puffy and my clothes are too tight. But, I have four little kids, along with other hormone imbalances (including thyroid) and I haven’t slept well in almost two years. I went to bed last night at 9pm and told my husband I was sleeping in today. He looked at me shocked and said “wow, you aren’t going to the gym? Good decision, I’m proud of you babe.”
    I would love to know, however, how long it will take for the weight to start dropping. I can only not work out for so long!

  4. “Really though, read it. Because everyone’s convinced being fat makes you diabetic (in much the same way, I would imagine, they probably think that having a runny nose gives you a cold)”

    The people at Newcastle UK studying diabetes are reasonably sure that a major cause of II diabetes is that the liver and pancreas get gummed up with fat and cannot operate properly; removing this weight – either through stapling stomach or by starvation diet for 8 weeks reversed diabetes in all subjects (4-year-diabetics).

  5. Great article and I’m also coming into this few years after the blog post. I came across this by searching stress and weight gain, as my doc and my chiropractor believe that stress in my life is a major cause for me holding onto weight and gaining weight despite not changing anything that I am doing. Boy, the last few posts sound very familiar!

    I left a comfortable and well paid job to follow my dream to own a café. I now own and operate a 7 day business which I am now coming to understand, is wreaking havoc on my weight and overall health. Not quite how I dreamt my dream would end up!

    I have thyroid issues (longterm), adrenal fatigue, back issues, weight gain, bloating, fat storage around the stomach (which I’ve never had and I hate it!!), lethargy, headaches, and the list goes on! Decided last night that enough was enough and I would do something serious about losing weight….restricting my diet and carbs (which apparently make me hold onto weight) and exercise, even though I am on my feet all day, every day.

    After reading the posts above, now I’m not so sure that restricting my diet and exercising will be kind to me – surely that cannot create more issues??? Help, this is driving me insane!

  6. Totally agree with Chris Kresser. Stress induces production of cortisol which makes the cells demand sugar (energy demand to combat stress) and consequently raising insulin (to normalize blood sugar) causing insulin resistance (since cells are constantly being bathed in insulin and their receptors become lesser receptive) finally causing diabetes/diabesity.However how does one control stress, the very act of control itself is another stressor. One needs to go very deeply into the origin of thought itself to unearth what stress is and why it comes about. Finally a realization has dawned upon me that whenever there is an effort to strengthen/protect oneself it is the the cause of risk/stress and thus objective based actions are the cause of all stress

    • I never been the So big but seeing like now I’m losing weight and I don’t tried to take everything to help me gain weight with a scene that is make me lose weight so what can I do to gain some weight I have high blood pressure and diabetes and I know I should be bigger than what I am so this is anything that I could do to help

  7. I always had insomnia. It was very frustrating. I am diabetic and want to lose weight. I can say for me that I starting praying every night and reading my devotion. I’m not saying that you have to be a Christian even though I pray you are. I haven’t had any difficulties sleeping which relates to your stress reducing theory. I am not stressed and have peace. I can sleep. I’m so much happier. I still am struggling with my weight so not sure if it’s combination of genetics, wrong foods, and laziness. I encourage everyone to definitely find that which helps them relax and do it every night before bed. Be blessed. .

  8. I know I’ve arrived here a few years late, I just googled “stress/weight gain” and found this. Despite eating wheat and sugar free for the past 2 months my weight is skyrocketing. I’ve been under so much stress from work and barely sleeping so I appreciate this article very much. My insomnia is horrible. The slightest noise wakes me up, then I’m up for hours. I’m so beside myself, and the doctors do nothing. They just say “eat less and exercise more.” It’s maddening. Thank you for this article.

  9. I wake up thin and gain girth throughout the day. I suspect this is the result of endocrine problems, cortisol and thyroid causing me to bloat. I do have thyroid nodes, a pituitary tumor and I take dessicated thyroid. What do you think is going on with me?

    I enjoy your posts. I’ve learned a lot.