Managing stress is important to health in a number of ways. Two recent studies show how stress can contribute to weight gain and poor metabolic health. According to researchers, stress can interfere with sleep, reducing both amount and quality and ultimately leading to circadian rhythm disruption.
When stress and sleep disruption impact the circadian rhythm, it can be disruptive to the timing of numerous bodily processes, including those associated with metabolism. This can contribute to weight gain, heightening the risk of developing type two diabetes and related disorders, as well as increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and a number of other diseases.
Stress and Sleep Disruption Linked to Weight Gain
Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine conducted a pair of studies exploring the connections between stress, its impact on sleep and how that impact can contribute to weight gain. The first of the two studies was published in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Reports and the second was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS), a prestigious peer-reviewed journal that has been in publication for more than a century.
The first of the two studies used mice as the research subjects, a common practice in medical research. The researchers used two groups of mice. One group received an implant that released a steady stream of stress hormones for three weeks with a goal of producing the same effects that chronic stress or a cortisol-increasing disease like Cushing’s would. The other group was left with the usual stress hormone levels and cycles. Both groups were fed a healthy diet.
Despite eating the same diet, the chronically stressed mice weighed nine percent more than the mice with more normal stress levels. The researchers found that the high-stress mice experienced a well over 100 percent increase in both brown and white fat as well as a sharp increase in insulin levels. Furthermore, when the implants were removed and the stress hormone levels returned to a more normal pattern, those changes reversed, yielding fat loss and normalized insulin levels.
The second study focused on fat cell production and the relationship of that process to timing and circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms and body clocks regulate the timing of countless activities throughout the body, right down to the activities of individual cells, including fat cells.
Aided by florescent color markers – red for the protein regulating circadian clock genes and yellow for a fat cell production regulating protein – the researchers conducting the second study were able to watch the daily pattern of fat cell production, including what the researchers termed “daily bursts” of “cell differentiation,” the point at which a fat precursor cell does indeed meet the conditions to become a fat cell. That transitional window of opportunity is about four hours long and takes place during the evening when people are usually resting or sleeping.
A Disrupted Circadian Rhythm Affects Your Metabolism
The results of these two studies suggest that the mechanisms involved in the link between stress and weight gain lie in the disruption of circadian rhythms which, in turn, disrupt the timing of the complex processes involved in metabolism, including hormone-release timing. Part of that relates to the negative impact stress has on sleep.
Sleep timing and quality are tightly entwined with the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, but sleep timing and quality also have an impact on circadian rhythm health. The circadian rhythm also helps to regulate and synchronize the timing of body clocks throughout the body.
When circadian rhythms are disrupted, the metabolic system processes can also be disrupted. That is how, theorized the researchers, the highly stressed mice in the first study could eat the same diet as the normal-stress-level mice and have so much more fat, while also weighing significantly more.
The second study revealed how time sensitive the processes involved in fat cell production are and the impact of circadian rhythms. Taken together the two studies highlight the importance of stress management to overall health, including maintaining a healthy weight and promoting healthy metabolic functioning.
Improve Stress Management for Better Sleep and Health
Don’t ignore stress. Instead, protect your health and improve your sleep by finding ways to productively deal with it. Exercise is a proven stress reducer, so get some physical activity daily. Make it pleasant, a walk with a friend or pet, perhaps a bike ride, maybe some tai chi or yoga.
Eat healthy, whole foods. Avoid unhealthy, ultra-processed foods. Incorporate a mindfully relaxing routine into your evening right before bedtime, such as meditation and muscle relaxation, perhaps a warm bath, mindfully and with intent setting the day’s stress aside. Make sure you are setting aside enough time to get a full night’s sleep.
Embrace the power of the word no to avoid over-scheduling yourself and your family, allowing some down time for relaxing and recharging yourself. Try to carve out time each day, even if it’s just 20 or 30 minutes, to do something you enjoy.