Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
updated 12/24/2004 1:39:05 PM ET 2004-12-24T18:39:05

If you have been putting on weight, some advertisements claim that hormonal changes from high stress may be to blame. These ads offer products that will supposedly normalize your hormones, thus decreasing your waist size. But is stress related to weight? Are hormones the link? And should you use these products?

Research does support some link between stress and weight. Stress is often involved when people relapse after weight loss, dropping new eating or exercise habits that they had hoped to continue.

When people are stressed they can also have trouble falling asleep. They may stay up late working or waiting to fully unwind. Even without any mental stress, studies show that a lack of sleep leads to lower levels of the hormone leptin, which can cause an increased appetite. Tired people often turn to food, too, to replenish their energy.

Cortisol — the hormone most often mentioned in connection with stress — has many different jobs. When we feel threatened or stressed, cortisol levels rise in a “fight or flight” reaction, making fuel available for us to fight or run away. Yet in today’s world we may never burn all the energy released by this hormone because stress is largely emotional and doesn’t require a physical response. A recent study suggests that cortisol levels increase with chronic work overload and worry.

It is important to keep in mind that individuals vary in their response to stress. In one study, cortisol levels increased with stress in both men and women, but the kind of stress that caused this reaction differed. Normally, repeated challenges fail to draw a cortisol response, but cortisol rises in some people even when they face familiar problems.

Some research suggests that cortisol may affect where body fat is stored. In one study, baseline levels of cortisol had no relation to women’s fat distribution. But those whose cortisol levels jumped the most in response to stress tended to have proportionally more waistline fat — even if they had a healthy weight. A greater proportion of fat at the waist was related to increased levels of ongoing stress related to work or finances, or lower levels of self-esteem. This waistline fat that gives people an apple shape poses the greatest health risks.

No evidence to support product claims
Although advertisements for some herbal products claim to lower cortisol levels and bring rapid loss of large amounts of weight — specifically from the waistline area — no evidence from respected research studies exists to support these claims. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has filed a legal complaint against marketers of two of these herbal supplements. The defendants have agreed to stop making such claims and advertisements, but the products remain on the market.

To control stress and its influence on weight, researchers recommend other strategies. Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., of Yale University, proposes a two-pronged approach. By making life changes such as scaling back commitments, learning better time management, or becoming more assertive, he suggests, we can reduce our stress. Exercise, meditation and yoga can then be used to cope with the remaining stress that we can’t eliminate.

Another way to counteract stress is to change our psychological response. Part of what makes challenging situations stressful is a feeling of hopelessness. If we explore different options for a situation, we may empower ourselves to overcome this feeling. For instance, if you tend to overeat when stressed, develop a list of non-food ways to handle the pressure. Learning to wait out the urge to eat — usually just ten to fifteen minutes — can also be a simple psychological change that makes a significant difference.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive Reprints


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