The Adrenal Effect: Weight Loss With Nourishment Rather Than Restriction
A Different Approach to Weight Loss
By: Dr. Nicole Roberts, ND
I have been seeing a trend of people that are busy, exhausted, gaining weight, and finding that traditional fitness plans are not working for them when it comes to weight loss. They echo feelings of hopelessness and being stuck in a body that refuses to shed fat. Burnt out from a fast-paced on-the-go lifestyle, they simply don’t have the energy to get into the gym 6 times a week and are completely disenchanted with a steady diet of oatmeal, baked chicken breast and boring salads. For those that do manage to stick to these diet and workout plans, after months of busting their butt, they may only see a 5 - 10 lb change in their weight.
Instinctively, they know something is wrong, that it shouldn’t be this hard to have a healthy body that is fit, strong and energized.
And I completely agree with them.
There is a massive industry out there, that includes some of the medical community, that continues to believe weight loss is all about exercise and calories in vs. calories out. For those that don’t lose weight with this formula, they are made to feel inadequate and as though their body is failing them. The problem is a lot of these weight loss programs have been created to cater to the masses, and often assume that diet and exercise is what every individuals needs to change in order to lose weight. For many people however, this is not the missing link. In fact, traditional diet and exercise plans can be very counterproductive for some people when it comes to weight loss.
Many people with stubborn weight gain are in various stages of adrenal stress and burn out. Their adrenal glands that supply cortisol throughout the day, have been called on to produce chronically elevated levels of cortisol for some time now (in response to emotional, mental and or physical stress; likely all three), and may be fatigued, leading to low and irregular cortisol outputs (hence the low energy, chronic fatigue and often poor sleep).
Chronically elevated cortisol leads to more stomach fat held across the abdomen and impaired insulin signalling which can increase energy storage as fat. Cortisol, the big bully that it can be when in excess, messes with insulin and appetite; I see this in many patients who can go from morning to early afternoon on coffee but become ravenous in the evening and are very triggered by comfort foods, often turning to sweets and rich foods to soothe themselves. Running on the fumes of stress, adrenalin and cortisol release can be described as a “wired and tired” or “empty” feeling.
By the time a patient is deeply burnt out and chronically fatigued, they are fighting just to get through the day, never mind finding the energy to hit the gym and meal prep.
What I also often find is a history of emotional stress and pain. This is when I describe how the body will store energy as fat and put on weight when it doesn’t feel safe. Weight gain is a protective mechanism from all manners of stress. In our evolution stress used to be starvation. Now, in our busy metropolitan world, stress is dating, traffic, ambient noise, marriage, debt, mortgages, phone ringers, work calls, deadlines, long hours, no sleep, loneliness, trauma, and so on.
Clinically, I see this phenomenon show up in patients’ lab work:
- low thyroid function
- dysregulated cortisol curves
- high fasting insulin
- low progesterone
- low, yet relatively high estrogen (compared to progesterone)
- anemia (in menstruating females)
I also see it show up in their symptoms:
- intractable fatigue
- stubborn weight gain that won’t budge
- hair loss
- anxiety and depression
- irritation & anger
It is not uncommon for someone to have tried many different programs for weight loss, each one having brought them small success followed by more weight gain and more fatigue.
What no one ever told them was how these diet and exercise plans exacerbated their burn out and did not support their metabolic needs.
Three big ways in which these traditional programs aggravate a burnt out state are:
- Exercise increases cortisol release, cardio in particular. I actually have my burnt out patients stop exercising initially (aside from low intensity exercise) until we can get them feeling more nourished so that they can exercise from a place of strength, not exhaustion. Lifting weights triggers a short spike in cortisol which can help burn fat, but this is something we add in down the road when the body is ready for it.
- Low carbohydrate diets, a common weight loss recommendation, can register as a stress and trigger the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA pathway) leading to more cortisol release. Low carb intake can further depress thyroid function, reduce progesterone and worsen depression or anxiety by lowering serotonin levels. I am not against a low carb lifestyle, and I do like to help patients identify & remove food triggers (many of which are grains), but I find a low carb diet is not always the ideal place for my burnt out patients to begin their weight loss journey.
- Forcing oneself to stick to a diet and exercise plan that was made by somebody else (and thus not necessarily well adapted to your life), especially with very little fuel in the energy tank, can be very stressful. I remember back in my dieting days, pinning up every diet plan from my trainer or print out from the internet onto my fridge, motivated the first day, and completely turned off by it within 48 hours, yet forcing myself to stick to it because I thought that was how results were achieved.
With patients who are struggling with some degree of fatigue and burn out, I approach weight loss from a perspective of nourishment, something that I find our modern lives lack.
This approach to weight loss focuses on a very nutrient dense diet, encouraging a love of working with fresh, colourful foods, resting the mind and body, slowing down schedules and cutting out unnecessary stressors, all while reconnecting with the self.
We pair this with an individualized treatment plan that often includes:
- Supplementing depleted nutrients for a short time
- Supporting your adrenals and cortisol response with botanicals, nutrients and lifestyle changes
- Testing for and diagnosing thyroid & hormonal changes that are inhibiting weight loss; this includes making lifestyle changes that reduce your exposure to hormone disrupting substances
- Healing your gut, reducing inflammation and supporting gut flora that is aligned with a healthy weight
- Supporting your mental health and emotional resilience with nutrition
- Addressing trauma and lingering emotional pain
- Adjusting your treatment plan as your body heals; adding exercise that you love, working movement into your day
I think the vast majority of my patients are surprised, albeit, relieved when they discover how we are going to approach their weight loss. What I always impress upon them is that to lose weight sustainably, we are going to heal their body and mind from the inside out. This is the complete opposite approach to fast fads and gimmicky weight loss programs born out of expensive supplements & injection therapies and very low calorie programs.
My goal is to bring each individual back into alignment with themselves, teaching them how to find a life that supports the way they want to look and feel.
About the Author
Dr. Nicole Roberts, ND is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario and is a member of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors.
Dr. Roberts, ND sits on the YPC Board of the Women's Brain Initiative and is involved with Heal At Home drug addiction recovery programs
I want to help you get back to the best version of yourself so that you can get back to your life.