Sam woke up, eyes half open and ready for the day. It was the morning of her prom and she had been waiting all of high school for that day. Going to prom seemed like the perfect way to end the painfully stressful 2 weeks of finals she had just endured and the prior month of studying. She looked at her dress hanging in her closet and for a split second, all those sleepless nights studying for tests and completing projects seemed worth it. She knew that deep down, that once the sun set and the dance lights came on, she would look magical and feel the same way.
She turned on the shower to start the day and glanced down at the scale as she walked by it. Chuckling, she recalled the beginning of the year when she was 15 pounds heavier and crying on the floor. She knew that she has worked so hard to lose that weight to fit into her dream dress; she exercised daily, ate healthy, got plenty of rest, and stayed hydrated. All that hard work so that she could fit into the perfect dress for the perfect night. She was so happy when she went last month to have the dress fitted and saw that it fit perfectly.
After stepping out of the shower and drying off, Sam called her girlfriends to show them her dress. They urged her to try it on just for fun. She slipped the dress on and reached her hands back towards the zipper. As she slowly zipped up the dress, for some odd reason, it didn’t feel right and all of a sudden got stuck. Standing in front of the mirror, Sam looked with horror because her once beautiful dress now looked like a sausage casing.
Distraught, she peeled the dress off and ran to the bathroom and stood in front of the scale hoping that once she stepped on, the number would be right and that the tailors messed up. Closing her eyes, she stepped on the scale and when she opened her eyes, her heart dropped to the floor. The scale read a number 10 pounds heavier than what it should have. Ruined, Sam couldn’t help but wonder what happened in the month between the dress fitting and prom.
Along with natural factors, there is a possible explanation for this sudden weight gain that has to do with the body’s hormones, particularly cortisol. Cortisol is a type of glucocorticoid, which is a class of steroid hormones (1). Cortisol is also commonly known as the “stress hormone” since it is largely responsible for the bodies response to stress.
When the body undergoes stress, cortisol is released by the adrenal gland and immediately causes changes within the body. There are three main changes that contribute to weight gain: the reduction in insulin production, increase in glucose levels, and the increase of visceral fat. When cortisol is released, its goal is to maximize the body’s intake of energy in the case of a stressor that induces the “fight or flight” response. It does so by raising the blood sugar levels and restricting the production of insulin, which basically starves the cells and signals the brain that the body needs more food. The release of cortisol also causes excess sugars and triglycerides in the body to be stored as visceral fat, which is deep in the abdomen and much harder to get rid of (1). Due to the constant stress that many people experience year round, especially in fast-paced and high-pressure environments, their bodies can constantly be producing cortisol and begins a vicious cycle of weight gain despite maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
One study, as a part of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging, found a correlation between cortisol levels within the body and a history of being overweight/ obese in individuals (2). The study tracked cortisol levels within the body by measuring the cortisol levels found in the hairs of each individual and their Body Mass Index (BMI) over a period of four years. The study was able to find a correlation between the two. The study found that levels of cortisol was elevated in obese/ overweight individuals compared to normal weight individuals, and also found that high exposure to cortisol over long periods of time was linked to the maintenance of obesity in individuals.
Another more recent study conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine has also found a link between glucocorticoids (cortisol), weight gain, and the body’s circadian rhythms. Normally, the body’s production of glucocorticoids follows the circadian rhythm, having lowest production at around “3 am rising to a peak at 8 am to give a wake-up signal and get the appetite going” (Holloway). However, the body’s circadian rhythms can be affected by staying up late, and consequently, the production of glucocorticoids. The study itself investigated the timing of glucocorticoid pulses and stress.
The researchers also experimented with glucocorticoids in mice. By feeding the mice glucocorticoid pellets, they were able to disrupt the natural glucocorticoid rhythms in the mice, leading to a doubling in fat mass. Mice fed pellets without glucocorticoid did not gain weight.
Further, mice injected with glucocorticoids did not gain weight if those injections coincided with normal peaks in glucocorticoid rhythm, even when glucocorticoid levels were increased 40 times (3).
The findings were quite surprising and one of the Stanford authors of the study, Mary Teruel, explains how the timing of stress and the resulting elevation in the production of cortisol is important (3). During the day, an elevation in cortisol level seems to have little effect on weight gain but has a massive effect at night when the body’s normal production is relatively low.
With these findings, doctors are now able to prescribe medicines correctly as to not have side effects like weight gain and allows individuals, like Sam, to have a better grasp and understanding of their bodies. Although Sam may not be able to have her picture-perfect prom, she now knows that her weight gain was a betrayal of her body.
1. Aronson, Dina. “Cortisol – Its Role in Stress, Inflammation, and Indications for Diet Therapy.” Today’s Dietitian, Nov. 2009, http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml.
2. Jackson, Sarah E., et al. “Hair Cortisol and Adiposity in a Population‐Based Sample of 2,527 Men and Women Aged 54 to 87 Years.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2017, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5324577/.
3. Holloway, James. “New Research Sheds Light on Weight Gain, Stress and Our Circadian Rhythms.” New Atlas – New Technology & Science News, New Atlas, 5 Apr. 2018, newatlas.com/circadian-stress-weight-stanford/54087/.