Stressed And Can’t Lose Weight? Here’s Why

I’ve spoken about stress before and how it impacts our weight loss journey and general health. 

However, I want to talk more specifically about it so you can take away practical steps to help. 

Stress + the menstrual cycle combined can cause all kinds of variations in weight and how the body reacts. 

Men don’t need to worry at all about this; men are pretty much the same every day. 

That’s why it’s really important to talk about the differences and to understand them. Trtle is the first nutrition app designed for females as it considers all these elements that the fitness industry ignore. 

So the first main question is, does stress impact weight loss?

One member (Sarah) was hitting her macros bang on, getting her steps in and doing the workouts. For months total weight wasn’t dropping. 

Until…..she started to reduce her overall stress. 

When it comes to stress, we have something called allostatic load. Think of this as a stress bucket. Workout stress goes into here and all other kinds of stress, “good” and “bad”.

The story of stress is this.

A quick but short response is good. Our immune system improves, our thighs get an injection of glucose ready to run from danger, our memory enhances and our appetite drops. 

But too much stress? When is the stress bucket always full? This can be stress on/off all day without dealing with it properly. 

The opposite happens:

The immune system drops 40-70% below baseline. 

That energy we mobilised ready to run? It goes back to storage but some fatty acids can get blocked or “stuck” due to elevated levels of the stress hormone glucocorticoids (cortisol is a glucocorticoid) increasing the risk of heart disease. 

Our memory starts to get impaired. 

And our appetites skyrocket for sugar, fatty foods. 

But what about water retention? How does this impact weight?

I’ll let Stress expert Robert Sapolsky explain:

“There’s one final cardiovascular trick in response to stress, involving the kidneys. Your body needs to conserve water. Thus, you decrease blood flow to your kidneys and, in addition, your brain sends a message to the kidneys: stop the process, reabsorb the water into the circulatory system.”

So think about this, Sarah is very stressed for months. The body is like “all the water she’s drinking? Conserve it now, do not let it go”. It may be the case Sarah noticed less frequent peeing or less volume. I don’t know. 

But what we do know is the body does conserve water, and when we are 60% water anyways, this can be a significant amount in chronic stress people.

Say you’re losing 1lb of fat per week, but your body is holding on to an extra 7 lbs of water due to stress.

It would take until week 8 to show a total drop in weight, even though the fat loss has been happening the entire time. Crazy. 

And let’s not even imagine the difference caused when the menstrual cycle comes into play more water retention when estrogen peaks, especially if lots of salty foods are eaten.

And wait, remember chronic stress people crave foods higher in salt, sugar and fats? Well, when you eat them + higher estrogen during some parts of the cycle + chronic stress, that’s a recipe for storing lots of sweet water molecules. 

So how do we deal with stress? When does it happen? Here’s the key thing:

“We don’t get stressed being chased by predators. We activate the stress-response in anticipation of challenges.”

Aka, we turn on the stress response all in our own mind. The story we tell ourselves about X can trigger it. 

Our thoughts about X can trigger it. 

The ancient Stoics were bang on again here “we suffer more in imagination than reality”. 

So when it comes to stress, it’s all triggered in our minds and our reaction/response to things. 

If there was a snake by your feet right now, would you be stressed? Only if you knew about it. The body can’t react unless the mind does. 

But I bet you looked at your feet right now; maybe a slight stress response happened at the mere thought of a snake being around your feet. 

So what we can do is learn to respond better to stimuli and not let everything stress us out. 

The issue isn’t our stress to actual physical danger, that’s a good thing and once the danger is over, we sigh relief. The problem is the prolonged stress response in our minds.

Here’s Robert Sapolsky again:

 “It is not so much that the stress-response runs out, but rather, with sufficient activation, that the stress-response can become more damaging than the stressor itself, especially when the stress is purely psychological. This is a critical concept, because it underlies the emergence of much stress-related disease.” 

Oh and here’s another thing stress does in relation to our fitness journey: 

If you are stressed chronically, constantly triggering the breakdown of proteins, your muscles never get the chance to rebuild. 


So you may be thinking, this is all doom and gloom; what can we do about it?

And I want to finish with practical ways to reduce our stress. Ways which Sarah did and as you can see from the graph her total weight drops due to the body not holding on to water all the time due to stress. 

1. Exercise

Here are the rules. You must want to do the exercise and it has to be an exercise you enjoy to cause stress relief. 

Change your mindset from “I have to do this workout” to “I CAN do this workout or I GET to do this”. Not everyone can walk, or go to a gym in a 1st world country. Change the way you look at exercising and it helps with stress relief too. 

Exercise enhances mood and blunts the stress response only for a few hours to a day after the exercise session. 

Exercise is stress-reducing so long as it is something you actually want to do. Let rats voluntarily run in a running wheel, and their health improves in all sorts of ways. Force them to, even while playing great dance music, and their health worsens.

You’re not forced to do anything, remember that, so stop saying, “oh I have to do this workout now….” you’re just triggering a stress response!

2. Social support

In a number of subtle studies, subjects were exposed to a stressor such as having to give a public speech or perform a mental arithmetic task or having two strangers argue with them, with or without a supportive friend present. In each case, social support translated into less of a cardiovascular stress-response. 

Go to the gym with a friend. Run with a friend. Walk with a friend. 

3. Controlling the rewards 

Studies show rats and pigeons prefer to press a lever to get food vs just having it thrown at them freely. 

So, in this case, control when you eat put a time to when you’re going to eat food vs just having food whenever. This can reduce your stress, and it’s preferable. 

Empowerment is key, take control and don’t give up control over what you eat to other people.

4. Predictability

Studies show when we have predictability, our stress reduces. 

Think of this in your day-to-day.

Is it predictable that you’ll get 8 hours of sleep? Food at X times? 15 mins of free time to yourself midday? A chance to get a morning walk in? An evening walk? That you wind down for bed every day at 9pm?

The more predictable we can make those things, the lower our stress.

If every day is chaos and you have no clue what’s happening then that may be *exciting* but too much of that (the story of stress, too much of anything is the opposite) and you’ll be stressing yourself out.

And if by now you should know the impact of stress!

And that’s exactly why we ask in the new macros app about how stressed you’ve been and your menstrual cycle info and symptoms. 

It plays a huge role in whether you’re gaining “weight” aka water or fat. 

We have to consider these things and be smart enough to know what’s going on.

And with our next app update, we are tracking stress, emotions, exercise, and feelings in more depth on a daily to build a more accurate picture. 

I hope you found this email useful; managing our stress is one of the biggest life “hacks” you can do.

Start today. 

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